“It was the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”
No, it wasn’t the sweet taste of victory at the Southeast Asian Games or of success after appearing on the Olympic stage as a 15-year-old. It was the bowl of plain noodles Quah Zheng Wen ate two days before the 2013 Asian Youth Games — his remedy of choice for an untimely bout of stomach flu mere days before the meet.
Quah couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink and could barely move around. As he and his parents waited for their flight to China, he lay flat on the ground of the airport. The opportunity to establish himself as the next Asian swimming prodigy was in jeopardy.
Thankfully, he recovered in time. The plain-noodle panacea was the start of a week that saw Quah, now a sophomore at Cal, win three gold medals. He was only one gold shy of tying a then single games swimming record that his older sister, Quah Ting Wen, set four years prior.
“I can feel proud about myself overcoming that sickness and being able to have the mental strength to come back and do it,” Quah said.
Fast-forward three years.
News from the Singaporean government regarding mandatory national service would give him yet another mental test — one that would change the course of his life. And while Quah’s accolades have not excused him from the expectations of his country, they have bought him precious time.
Quah’s path to the pool was blazed by his older sister, who is four years his elder. When Ting was five, their parents brought her to the nearby pool on the weekends just to play.
“It came to a point where they wanted me to be safe in the water, so they enrolled me in some water safety classes, and I was about 5 or 6,” Ting said.
Those water safety classes turned into swimming classes which turned into competitive swimming. As she went to the pool every day for practice, Quah tagged along and waddled in the water.
“I was spending so much time by the side of the pool that my parents were like, ‘Why not put him in there and see how he likes it?’ ” Quah said.
One thing led to another, and soon enough, Quah’s mother was waking up every day at 4:50 a.m. to drive him to early swim practice. After that, she would return home to cook lunch, which she then delivered back to school.
When Quah was 8, he began participating in swim meets with his school. It would take seven more years of paddling in the local pool until his first taste of the spotlight.
At the 2011 Southeast Asian Games, Quah swam the 400-meter individual medley. Four different strokes and seven turns later, he stood on the highest level of the podium for the first time representing his home country.
That swim made the FINA “B” standard, which, although didn’t automatically guarantee him admission to the 2012 London Olympic Games, eventually secured him an invite to be on the blocks next to the world’s greatest.
“It was definitely one of my greatest achievements,” Quah said. “I was like 15, just won a gold medal, first event, first games. I was like, ‘Yo, I could be good at this.’ ”
“Good” might be an understatement.
Two years after swimming himself onto the map, Quah stepped up as the anchor of the 4×200 free relay at the Southeast Asian Games, the back end of an exhausting night in the pool.
It seemed as though the fatigue had hit him as he made the final turn trailing Malaysia’s last swimmer. But Quah assured everyone in the pool and in Southeast Asia that he had enough in the tank.
His final 50-meter was nearly a second faster than Welson Sim in the neighboring lane, more than enough to clinch the gold for Singapore.
“It was just racing; he just left nothing,” Ting said, who had flown back from UCLA to compete as well and watched the race from poolside. “He held nothing back and let everything out in that race. I think it was at that point in time where I realized my brother is a really good racer, and he has really little fear when it comes to racing.”
Quah’s dominance of the region continued at the 2015 Southeast Asian Games, as he clinched a spot on the podium 12 times in front of his home crowd, winning the gold on seven occasions.
“I feel like no one ever looks beyond that because we’ve become comfortable at that level and we haven’t progressed to like the Asian Games or Commonwealth Games,” Quah said. “We go and we participate, but we don’t do as well as I think we can do as a nation.”
Quah was hungry. Quah wanted more than just regional recognition.
This was why the 2016 Rio Olympics were so important for him.
While countryman Joseph Schooling stunned the world in the 100-meter fly, touching well ahead of world-recordholder Michael Phelps, Quah made quite a splash himself, finishing 10th in the 200-meter fly on the world’s biggest stage.
Admittedly, he was bummed that he missed out on the finals by less than one-tenth of a second. Looking back, however, it only fueled him.
“It just felt good,” Quah said. “It showed me that I could do it. If I really wanted to, I could. It’s not about the medal or the record, but it’s finding that new hunger.”
For someone who hadn’t even turned 20 at the time, the horizons seemed endless — both in and out of the pool. But his country had other ideas.
National service is mandatory for men in the small island nation of Singapore; boys get a letter as soon as they turn 17. Getting one deferment was rare enough, let alone two.
In 2015, Quah received his first deferment to train for the 2016 Olympics. For a month after the Rio games, Quah and his sister traveled, spending valuable time together before he was scheduled to enlist in October that year. But when they returned, they got the news.
He was getting a second deferment from the army — until after the 2020 Tokyo Games. A life-altering decision was on the line.
He could decline the deferment and serve his two years in the army starting October 2016.
He could also accept the deferment, but that route produced two additional paths.
An outstanding student in the classroom, Quah had been accepted to the School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore, the country’s most prestigious college. If he enrolled, he would be on track to become a doctor — a well-respected profession in Singaporean society.
The one downside? The program would not have been conducive to swimming.
The other path was less certain and certainly less taken. He could follow his older sister across the ocean, leave the place he called home for all his life and enroll in an American university to swim at the collegiate level.
“(Singapore is) just so academically oriented that everyone just feels the need to be so competitive and get those fields that they have to give up something, be it what they like, be it their passions,” Quah said. “And for a lot of people, sports was a way to get into a good college.”
There were many question marks with the path to the United States. What if the medical school back home didn’t save his spot for four years? What if the government called him back? What if he didn’t succeed at the American collegiate stage?
Quah didn’t care. His hunger for more in the pool persisted, and the best way for him to feed that hunger was to come across the treacherous waters and swim at Cal.
“I think he’s brave to do that, and it really shows his passion for the sport and wanting to see how far he can go,” Ting said. “If you ask anyone at home here and without explaining the reason that he’s going to Cal, most of the kids would tell you that he was wasting four, four and a half years — wasting time, wasting money.”
Instead of pushing back, the parents provided nothing but support.
“(My mom) was definitely very supportive of what I wanted to do, which was swim, and she always believed in me,” Quah said. “(My dad) was always the more laid-back parent, but he was always really passionate about what I was into as well.”
Tons of paperwork and one long recruiting trip later, he landed ashore at Cal and became a Bear — and definitely earned the recognition outside of Southeast Asia he so dearly desired.
In his first season, Quah contributed 31 points in Cal’s runner-up finish at the 2017 NCAAs, finishing second in the 200-meter fly and breaking Tom Shields’ school record in the process.
The following year, he finished sixth in the 200 fly and swam an important leg in the 800 free relay as part of another Cal runner-up finish at the NCAAs.
“I think he’s extremely adaptable,” said Cal head coach Dave Durden. “He is very thoughtful in how he talks about swimming and how he talks about his training.”
Talking to him now and watching him swim, one can see no signs of regret in making the decision to follow in his sister’s splashes.
“I think that coming here has only been good things so far,” Quah said. “I’ve definitely missed home; I miss home-cooked food.”
Competing for Singapore’s red and white is always on the back of his mind. Just as important are the amenities at the Olympic Village in 2020.
“Tokyo is going to be so nice,” Quah said. “The food is going to be so good. The dining hall is going to have sashimi, I’m going to be like, ‘Oh, my God, unlimited!’ ”
Eventually, he’ll have to return and serve the Lion City. But for now, he’ll try to stay hungry for the Olympics.
Maybe Tokyo 2020 will taste just as good as that bowl of plain noodles he had as a teenager years ago.m