One Breath At A Time

24 Aug 2012 | By Jeremy Boo

By constantly pushing beyond perceived human limitations, athletes rouse the dreams we believed to be sheer fantasies. They become our aspirations.

What about athletes with physical disabilities? Could we possibly aspire to be like them, with their evident and seemingly ruinous flaws? What are their motivations?

We were looking for the answers to these questions when we arrived at Yunzhinan Swimming Club in Kunming, Yunnan, China. The Yunzhinan Swimming Club teaches youth with disabilities how to swim. Most of them hope to make it to the Paralympics.

Working in the background, we attempted to discern their world. What we could not glean from observation, we held interviews thinly disguised as casual conversations. Their answers, though typically short and direct, shook the assumptions we founded our ideas upon.

How did you feel when you learnt how to swim?
Nothing.
Nothing at all? Not happy?
No. I felt like I’m moving through water. That’s about it.
So why did you join this club?
For my future.

They are not there to learn a new skill. They are not there to have fun. They do not gain new freedoms in the water. Some do not even particularly like swimming.

Swimming is merely the means to an end. They want a better future of their doing. Begging for donations is neither beneficial to their reputation, nor sustainable.

This stark pragmatism adds urgency and gravity to their staunch belief in perseverance. They train twice a day, no matter how tired they are, from 9am to 12 noon and 2pm to 5pm. Every stroke is scrutinised and each mistake, rectified. They kick harder and faster for laps that grow longer.

Very quickly into the making of this video, we found ourselves fighting parallel battles. Certainly, this is one of the most difficult projects we have embarked on.

At the swimming pool, which is shared with the public, shrieks of children and splashes of water bounced off the walls and zinc roof of the cavernous building. Recording clear sound was impossible. The only place that was quiet enough faces an apartment block with a hodgepodge of satellite dishes, which caused interference with the wireless microphones we used. The floor-to-ceiling windows on one side of the building meant it was either overexposed on one end or underexposed on the other. As non-native Chinese speakers, we struggled to bridge language and cultural differences. To make matters worse, we were incapacitated for quite a few days by the most disagreeable bout of food poisoning.

There were moments, no matter how short, when we were especially frustrated and exhausted and the thought of giving up crossed our minds. But how could we give up when the people we were filming did not?

Many swimmers in Yunzhinan Swimming Club do not see themselves as disabled athletes. They see themselves as athletes — as people who shatter the improbable and give life to the dreams of spectators.

They are absolutely right.

This documentary was supported by Our Better World, an initiative by the Singapore International Foundation.