Heidi Gan possesses that elusive and powerful trifecta of incredible athletic ability, intellect and determination; and she chose to excel at open water swimming, which until recently many didn’t even realise was a sport. Open water swimming, also known as marathon swimming, is swimming up to 10km in bodies of water like lakes, rivers, dams, channels and the sea. It has been an Olympic event since 2008 and part of the FINA World Aquatics Championships since 1991.
Swimming as a sport is highly competitive, not dissimilar to athletics in the excitement and incredible level of fitness competitors must attain. Open water swimming is quite different as you are no longer within the controlled confines of a swimming pool. When swimming in the sea for example, one must take into consideration tides, temperature, swells and currents. It can be disorientating and draining if the water is choppy or the weather turns.
At the recent SEA Games held in KL this month, Heidi swam her way to a gold medal in the 10km open water event in front of a proud home crowd. She has represented the country at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and became the first Malaysian to win the Asian Open Water Swimming Championships earlier this year. Presently based in Perth and training with Perth City Swimming Club, Heidi is also a solicitor with a local law firm. We asked her a few questions and were struck by her determination and propensity for hard work.
Photo credit: Heidi Gan
Q: Tell us a bit of yourself, how you got into swimming and do you have a day job?
A: I’m 29 years old, a two-time Malaysian Olympian and also a solicitor.
I got into swimming because my parents wanted to ensure I could swim from a young age given it’s a potentially life saving skill to have. So they put me into swimming lessons at the age of 5 and it turned out I was pretty good at it, and I enjoyed it, and everything else just went from there.
I am based in Perth where I studied for a law and commerce degree at the University of Western Australia and stayed on when I began working at a local law firm so I could continue training with my squad. I train with a strong swimming club in Perth with a specialised open water swimming programme, with my coach Matt Magee, and a great training group so it’s perfect for me. I continue to work with the same law firm (Bennett + Co) on a full time basis to this day – they have supported me since I was in university and throughout my whole swimming career.
I got into open water swimming because I joined a surf life saving club during my early days of university, and this involved a lot of swimming in the ocean. I had the opportunity to do a few open water swimming races and since I already had some experience, I gave it a go and really enjoyed it. I was reaching a stagnant period in my pool swimming career where I wasn’t enjoying it anymore after having done it for so long so I converted to open water swimming and a few years later I qualified for my first Olympic games in the 10km open water swimming event!
Q: What is a typical day of training like? Is there a difference in your routine before a big event like the SEA Games?
I wake up at 4.30am six mornings a week for training. I train around 8km average from 5.30am to 7.30am, then swiftly shower, change and get ready for work at the pool. I take the bus from the pool to the city where my office is and am at my desk by 8.30am. I work until 4.00pm then do the reverse – take the bus back to the pool, train 4.30pm till 6.30pm where I will swim another 8km or so then usually head straight home for dinner, cook, eat and straight to bed as soon as I can to get as close to 8 hours sleep a night (which is near impossible). I also manage to squeeze in two gym sessions and at least one physio session a week into that schedule. It’s very busy and I run on a very tight schedule!
My coach and I plan my training around big events so I go through different phases of training (e.g. endurance, speed, recovery), planned around the dates of major competitions.
My preparation for this SEA Games was slightly different than usual because I knew that the water would be very warm and the number of competitors in the field less than what I am used to racing at world level, which called for a slight change in strategy and preparation.
Q: Describe what your diet is like normally versus when you're in training.
I generally follow a very clean diet both during training and outside training, although I am stricter during training. I avoid processed foods and eat whole foods with a focus on nutrient-dense food groups like fresh vegetables and good quality meats. I try to eliminate sugar; and coffee is definitely my weakness both during and outside training! I eat clean during training to maximise my physical performance but I also like to follow a clean diet outside of training for general health and wellbeing.
Q: When you're swimming long distance, what goes through your mind and what keeps you motivated?
I am an intrinsically motivated person, which definitely helps in marathon sports! I am motivated by the want to improve myself and I set goals to keep this going.
At the start of every season, my coach and I plan my goals and targets. We set short-term, medium-term and long-term goals and write down our strategies to achieve those goals and what attributes I need to achieve them too. I also set daily goals at training. For example, I might say, “In today’s session, I am going to work on my turn of speed”. Breaking down your goals into bite-size chunks is the best away to achieve them, and I think about these mini goals during training to keep me motivated towards achieving my long-term goals.
Photo credit: Heidi Gan
Q: Going to the Olympics is the epitome of every athlete's career. What was is it like competing at the Olympics compared to other competitions? What was your first thought when you realised you'd be representing your country at the Games?
It is the greatest honour to represent your country at the highest and the Olympics is the pinnacle of many athletes’ careers. While I prepare for every competition seriously, competing at the Olympics comes with additional feelings of pride, honour and a sense of personal achievement because the whole world is watching and everyone understands what the Olympic movement is about.
Competing at the Olympics was a phenomenal experience for me – to see the support from Malaysians across the world and also the support from Australians who know me through my time in Australia was very humbling. It makes you realise that sport is not just about you and has the ability to bring people from all over the world together to celebrate the spirit of competition.
My first thought was “Oh my gosh, I did it. I’m going to be an Olympian!” It’s something you dream about as little kid but never really think it’s something that can be achieved until you have done it. It’s quite surreal.
Q: What was your favourite career win? How did it feel to win at the recent SEA Games?
My favourite career win was definitely winning the gold at the 2017 SEA Games in front of a home crowd in Malaysia. The feeling was unreal, the support was incredible and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to win a gold for my country in front of fans and people that have supported me for so long. Open water swimming is a relatively new sport, especially to Malaysia. It has only been in three Games, so for me, to show Malaysians that we can excel in open water swimming and to introduce the public to the sport was very special.
Q: What advice would you give to female athletes who want to go all the way to the top?
My advice is to try your best in whatever you do. Don’t make excuses, be accountable for your actions, make no compromises in your pursuit for excellence and of course, enjoy every minute of what you do. It will all be worthwhile and nobody can ask any more of you.
Athletes are continuously compared to and ranked against each other on a daily basis. This is the nature of competitive sport and can have a negative impact on young athletes, particularly girls, making sports unenjoyable. Love what you do and do the best you can.
An important aspect of being a successful sportsperson is the ability to enjoy a life outside the sport. Heidi loves to bake cakes (and we bet they taste great!), try new restaurants, and spend time with her family and partner, and their dogs. It will be interesting to see what she does next, but until then, she is going to take a well-earned break and decide what to do with her swimming career moving forward.