Unperturbed by disabilities, national para swimmer Sophie Soon strives to make the best out of any situation
The visually impaired Sophie refuses to let her disabilities or COVID-19 stop her from representing Singapore at the Paralympic Games this year.
Like many of her peers, 25-year-old Sophie Soon is an active youth.
She swims regularly and plays the violin. She’s also proven to be quite talented at both too, winning numerous medals and awards.
Sophie, however, isn’t like the regular person on the street. She’s visually impaired, having been diagnosed with cone rod dystrophy, a progressive condition which results in vision loss, since five years old.
But that’s where she wants the differences to end. Since young, Sophie has learned how to deal with challenges in life.
At nine, Sophie’s mother enrolled her for swimming lessons to build up her water safety and confidence levels. Sophie remembered feeling uneasy about it.
“At that time, I didn’t particularly enjoy swimming and felt really uncomfortable when my feet couldn’t touch the floor. I didn’t like to get my face wet and for my head to be underwater too,” she said.
As time went by, Sophie managed to overcome her fears and fell in love with the sport. She eventually became good enough to represent Singapore as a para-athlete.
Admitting her love of being able to compete, Sophie has represented her alma mater Nanyang Polytechnic and Singapore in various swimming meets, both locally and in the region.
Some of her achievements include bagging a personal best timing in the 100 metre butterfly event at the ASEAN Para Games in 2015, before winning three gold medals in the 2016 National Para-Swimming Championship.
She also represented Singapore at the World Para Swimming World Series in 2019 with her younger brother and fellow swimmer, Colin.
Being a competitive swimmer meant that Sophie has had to stop her violin lessons, as she struggled to juggle between both commitments. A Grade 8 violinist, Sophie has performed with The Sam Willows at the 2014 President’s Star Charity Show.
“I remember trying to juggle both and I felt that I was at a breaking point after some time. I started to dislike practising my pieces, and wasn’t enjoying playing and performing as before,” Sophie admitted.
“I decided to take a break from music until I’ve the time to pick it up again. I do still pick up my violin from time to time so that I do not lose my touch with it. I also play songs I’ve learnt over the years to reminisce and bring me back to the time when music was everything to me.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year, Sophie faced yet another challenge in her life – getting to places – but once again, she overcame it.
“Initially, I found it rather inconvenient as many of my familiar routes were changed,” Sophie said.
“For example, going to the shopping malls was not so straightforward anymore as they changed their entrance and exit points (due to the newly-implemented measures).
“Together with my guide dog, Orinda, and with the help from my family, friends and the Guide Dogs Singapore team, I have however managed to learn new routes so that I can still travel to my frequented areas.”
What Sophie, or people with disabilities in general, may see as a challenge might not appear that way for the general population. Which is why Sophie grabbed the opportunity when offered to partner insurance company Great Eastern to raise awareness for people with disabilities through the #Lifeproof campaign that started in late 2020.
“The campaign concept was original and something I’ve never seen before,” she said.
“It was a creative way to portray persons with disabilities by emphasising our talents and what we can achieve, instead of focusing on our disabilities and our limitations.”
Colin Chan, managing director of group marketing at Great Eastern, said this project seeks to educate people from all walks of life on the importance of planning ahead despite life’s unforeseen circumstances.
“Disability can happen to anyone at any time and we felt that having real stories of people with disabilities to share how they live #lifeproof in spite of their challenges, would resonate with Singaporeans,” he added.
“As the Life Company, we hope that this authentic approach gets people’s attention so that they are well prepared and rise above these challenges if any unforeseen happens.”
As a professional athlete, Sophie has certainly encountered her fair share of struggles. But through her sporting pursuits, she’s picked up a few life lessons.
“I have learnt not to undermine my own struggles. When I am going through a tough time, I tell myself that it is temporary, and I will get through it,” she said.
“To stay motivated, I set my attention on what is within my control, how I can change the situation for the better with what I can do, and to be forward looking. I also try not to dwell on what has happened.”
Her next challenge now is to make the cut and represent Singapore at the 2021 Paralympics, scheduled for Aug 24 to Sep 5 in Tokyo.
Despite the global pandemic situation, Sophie continues to train with the mindset that the Games will go on and acknowledged that it is not something within her control if it doesn’t.
Instead, she is using this opportunity to improve and better herself as there will still be other competitions for her to work towards.
Sophie knows she is not alone in this.
“We have a saying – it takes a village to raise an athlete. I’ve got a whole team behind me who is always supporting me, and I’m so grateful for all of them,” she said.
“My teammates whom I train with are my constant inspirations. Watching them train and working hard to better themselves motivates me to work hard and push towards my goals as well.”
Apart from becoming a Paralympian, Sophie also hopes to be able to pursue a diploma in music in the future.
“I want to be happy, doing the things I love whilst having people I love around me,” she added.
She also wants her story to inspire people with disabilities to pursue their dreams – whether it is in the arts, sports, or any other field.
“Just go for it. It may seem scary at the beginning, but remember that everything is scary when it’s new to you. Acknowledge your fears but don’t be overcome by that,” she said.