For Team Singapore swimming coach Mick Massey, the three medals won by his pair of swimmers, Yip Pin Xiu and Theresa Goh, at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games were not just reward for two years of sustained effort but it was the fruit of two special relationships.
The special bond between Mick and his swimmers was evident to anyone who saw his reaction to those victories. The Englishman’s broad smiles reflected not simply the satisfaction of a job well done but his deep pride in two women who put in what he called “extraordinary work” over the 24 months they have worked together.
Looking back on the success for Theresa and Pin Xiu in Rio, Mick is quick to praise the roles played by the pairs' previous coaches and their roles in shaping the careers of the best friends.
“It’s not just what I did with the team,” said Mick, “There are other coaches that have worked with them in years gone by. I don’t really know those coaches but I have the greatest admiration for what they have done.
“Those coaches have helped mould the girls into what they are. In effect, I have been fortunate to get something like the ‘anchor leg’ in the team medley relay. I am the one who has got the accolades but there are a lot of people who put a lot of work into getting the girls psychologically and physiologically into the place that they are,” he said.
True enough, but Mick did somewhat more than just add the finishing touches – that 24 months ‘anchor leg’ involved intense physical and psychological work which saw both swimmers significantly improve their times in the build-up to Rio and then earn their podium positions with Pin Xiu winning two Gold in backstroke and Theresa claiming a Bronze in the breaststroke.
"Our wildest expectation two years ago was not even close to what we got. When I sat down with the Head of High Performance at Singapore Sports Institute, Richard Gordon, we were talking about getting Pin Xiu on the podium and Theresa into the final, so in just short of two years that is quite an achievement,” he said, looking back on the initial goals set for him.
Missed out on Pin Xiu's world record-breaking win? Read on and catch up on her interview here.
When Mick, who hails from Manchester in the North West of England and who now works at Dulwich College in Singapore having previously coached with the Great Britain Paralympic team, began working with the two swimmers, he found them uncertain of their plans.
“If the truth be told they were in a state of de-training. I think they were at a point in their career where they were both considering whether to come to Rio or whatever,” he said.
Once they had decided that Rio was their goal though, both swimmers had shoulder problems early in the process and that required some work to get them in the right shape for the more intense work which was to come.
“In the very early days it was very difficult because we couldn’t get any consistency in training. It took a lot of patience and a lot of skill by the sports medical staff too, who did a fantastic job, getting them into a place where they could actual train week-in-week out,” said Mick.
While the close bond between Theresa and Pin Xiu is well known to followers of Singapore sports, Mick revealed that their head-to-head race in the OCBC Centre at the 8th ASEAN Para Games in December 2015 led to some surprising behaviour.
While Theresa was in top-form, Pin Xiu had to swim up against a more able category of swimmers including her best friend Theresa and she hadn’t tapered and prepared for the event to win.
“Everything went to plan until the final day, it was the 50m backstroke. First of all, Theresa said to me, ‘can I go on my own to the pool?’, I was erm, ‘Ok then’,” recalls Mick.
“I took Pin Xiu which was unusual as we always go together. When we got to the pool, I realised what was going on. The girls didn’t even speak to each other, they wouldn’t even look at each other, I have never seen it before and never seen it since.”
“The two girls have an amazing life-long friendship but it just shows that when it comes to racing they are both fiercely competitive.”
“We had a little room. The girls were in there basically back to back. I was thinking what is going on here? This is not normal. Even though Pin Xiu was really up against S5 athletes, secretly inside, that will to win, she really wanted to win which she hadn’t said before.”
“I warmed the girls up separately, we went to the call room and I just had to sit down with the girls and said “We aren’t carrying on with this any longer, you need to speak to each other before we go out to race”.
“I think they both realised what they had done and everything was alright. Pin Xiu went out and broke the world record and produced one of the greatest finishes I have ever seen. Former Team Singapore Olympic coach, Sergio Lopez said a few days after “I don’t understand how your athlete could finish like that. That is one of the greatest finishes I’ve seen in backstroke,” he said.
The lesson Mick learnt from that race though was that when it came to competitive spirit, nothing got in the way of the pair’s desire to win.
“The two girls have an amazing life-long friendship but it just shows that when it comes to racing they are both fiercely competitive,” he said.
After a Christmas break, the team travelled far and wide to competitions and camps as they built up their form towards Rio. They flew to Australia, Russia, Cyprus, Portugal, Thailand and Spain.
“From January, the girls just got better and better and you could just see the will and determination. The thing I love about the two girls is that when we have done some of our hardest sets at the OCBC Aquatic Centre, after they always have a big smile. They work really hard and push themselves to exhaustion.
“I like to take a picture of them when they have finished their hardest work – I like to show it to them afterwards and to show people what they go through in training – its damned hard. The level that people have to push themselves to, to achieve at the highest level, is way beyond. When people talk about training, you talk about hurting yourself to the point where the girls are tearful. I have been very fortunate that both the girls have that fire inside them, I stand in awe of it sometimes,” he says.
After four Paralympic Games outings, Theresa's efforts paid off when she clinched her first Paralympics Bronze medal. Her parents and coach Mick share their thoughts on her proudest moment.
Working with para athletes though presents some different challenges than coaching able-bodied athletes.
“I try not to talk about levels of disability. I coach the girls as able-bodied athletes but obviously my experience makes sure that I don’t push them beyond, there is no point in pushing someone into a hole because then you just spend a lot of time getting them out of there. But the girls, the level that they can push themselves to, is pretty phenomenal,” he said.
“People see Pin Xiu in a chair and they don’t know. Sometimes when she holds your hand she can barely grip your hand and then you are asking them to give you 16 50’s…”
“I just have the greatest admiration for the pair of them. I have worked with some great athletes and some incredible trainers but they are right up there at the top of the trainers with the most determination and the most guts,” he said.
Mick began his coaching career with age-group youth swimmers at Stockport Metro and he says he is constantly surprised by how many of his former charges can recall specific words he used with them.
“You should never underestimate how much a child takes in what you tell them. Even the most flippant comment can be remembered years later. You have always got to be conscious of what you say to them,” he said.
"I have been very fortunate that both the girls have that fire inside them, I stand in awe of it sometimes.”
- Mick Massey
“Coaching or teaching is not a job, it is a vocation,” continued Mick, who believes a central element of the process is building a bond with the athlete.
“The best coaches, people like Bob Bowman and so on, are people who can connect with their swimmers. Swimmers are not your friends, technically, because there is always a line between them and you. But you come as close as you can to that line so that you bond and have a real friendship built on respect.”
“You can’t force people to like you or respect you but you can work really hard and get them to respect you – what happens is that both of you come to the line, that is where you need to be. You need to be on opposite sides of the line all the time, it is a fine line.”
“But when the day comes when the athlete retires or you move on, then the line disappears and the bond that you have got becomes forever. You have that friendship and that love and memories to last forever. These are the things I try to say to the young coaches at school.”
“With the coach-athlete relationship, that is the pivotal thing, building that bond. If your swimmers are not happy, you can have the best training sets, the best facilities, whatever you want. But the truth is, psychologically if your swimmers are not happy, they will not perform. They only perform if they are in a good state of mind,” he said.
You only need to glance at the images of Mick with Theresa and Pin Xiu in Rio to appreciate what the coach is talking about.
“I think I was pretty fortunate to get them,” says Mick with a grin.