Titan of the SEA: A catch-up with former swimmer David Lim
A household name during his heyday, David Lim might not have become one of Singapore’s most decorated swimmers if not for his father
He won his first national championship at the age of 14.
A year later, he shaved four seconds off his under-14 mark to rewrite the national record with a time of 1min 2sec.
By the time he retired in 1991, after 10 years of competitive swimming, David Lim had amassed 19 South-east Asia (SEA) Games gold medals, five silvers and two bronzes, and another three bronzes from the Asian Games.
Today he is one of the Singapore's swim team coaches. It is his 10th SEA Games in the role.
But, Lim’s start in the sport was not triggered by an extremely early show of promise or a burning passion from a young age.
If not for his father Anthony Lim, Singapore probably would not have had its swim star of the 1980s.
The senior Lim made it a point to make all his three children learn how to swim, because he nearly drowned as a teenager after jumping into a river to escape pursuing Japanese soldiers during World War Two (see the story below).
“That’s how I became a swim star,” said Lim, clad in T-shirt, shorts and sandals, by the side of the pool at Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) recently.
“My father couldn’t swim. And he didn’t want us to one day ever find ourselves in his shoes, so he made us all learn how to swim.”
By his own reckoning, the backstroke specialist wasn’t a child prodigy in the water.
During primary school meets, he would “always finish in third, fourth or fifth”.
His breakthrough finally came when he was 14.
“Maybe my growth spurt played a part, because I was of only average build as a kid,” said 48-year-old Lim, who now stands at 1.82 metres.
And a South-east Asian swim legend was born.
A young David Lim. ST FILE PHOTO
In all, Lim swam in six SEA Games from 1981 to 1991, hammering his opponents and smashing records everywhere he went.
His finest SEA Games moment came in the 1985 edition in Bangkok.
Lim entered six events (including relays), won all six and broke every single Games record along the way.
Although Bangkok ’85 was known as his “perfect meet”, the home Games two years earlier was just a tad more special. In front of a packed Toa Payoh Swimming Complex, the 17-year-old swam his way to one gold (4x400m medley relay) and two silvers (100m and 200m backstroke) in front of a sell-out home crowd.
He said: “It’s always extra special at home. You get an extra boost because you are performing in front of your home crowd.
“It remains the only major international meet that I have swum in Singapore.
“The rest, despite me winning plenty of medals, were away from home. It’s a different feeling you get.
“The roar when we clinched the gold was just deafening. Everyone was cheering madly.
“I still recall the sense of joy and pride when I received my gold medal from E W Barker (then Minister for Law and Labour).”
Lim would go on to represent Singapore in major meets, including two Olympic Games (1984, 1988), two World Championships (1986 and 1991) and two Commonwealth Games (1986, 1990).
These days, the three-time Sportsman of the Year in 1986, 1988 and 1989 still gets recognised on the streets.
He said: “No more autographs, lah. “Those who recognise my face are usually from the older generation.
“But yesterday, at a car showroom in Eunos, the salesman saw me and asked me if I was David Lim.
“I hope he gave me a good discount!”
PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID LIM
'I was lucky I didn't drown'
Anthony Lim still vividly recalls his brush with death from more than 70 years ago like it was only yesterday.
It was during the Japanese Occupation.
Circumstances had forced him to take up the burden of providing for his family even though he was barely into his teens.
Lim, 85, said: “My old man died during the war and my elder brother was working in Johor Bahru.
“So, I became the eldest. I had three younger brothers and one younger sister, and I needed to make a living to support the family.”
He turned to selling sweet potatoes by the roadside, in the Bukit Timah area where he lived. He sold to anyone he could came across, even if it came with considerable risks.
The Japanese soldiers had warned him on several occasions not to sell his food to the prisoners-of-war.
But desperation forced Lim to take his chances, until the day his luck ran out — well, almost.
He said: “I saw a British prisoner-of-war walk past, so I sold him my sweet potatoes. “The Japanese soldiers saw it and were infuriated, and they started to give chase. I ran as fast as I could. I remember being so nearly caught.
“I got desperate and plunged into the river. I didn’t even have time to remember that I couldn’t swim. It was that or being caught, and who would have known what would happen to me if I was caught.
“It was frightening. But luck was on my side. It was low tide. If not, I would have drowned.
“I was so lucky to get away, because the Japanese soldiers stopped giving chase by the river bank.
“When I got to the other side of the river, I saw one of them point at his rifle, signalling to me to say that they would surely gun me down the next time.
“From then on, I told myself one thing. That one day, when I have children of my own, I would make sure that they can swim.”
But little was he to know that his three children would eventually all turn out to be so proficient in the water.
His daughter Jenny was also a national swimmer, while Alan played water polo for the Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association.