I am a national swimmer and I had scoliosis
Khoo Cai Lin swam at the Olympics twice – in 2008 and 2012 – and now, she opens up about her battle with scoliosis, a spinal disorder
In conjunction with our August 2017 issue that celebrates body positivity, Malaysian swimmer Khoo Cai Lin, told us about her journey and battle with scoliosis, a spinal disorder, and how she overcame it. Cai Lin represented Malaysia at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, and has also won five gold medals at the SEA Games, the most recent being the 2013 edition at Naypyidaw, Myanmar.
Whether male or female, your body image affects you in one way or another – emotionally, mentally or physically. When I first joined the Malaysian national swim team at the age of 14, my coach was very strict about my weight. Being only 166cm tall at the time, I was NEVER allowed to hit 50kg.
I had to wear a tracksuit and run 10 laps around the track at 3 or 4 in the evening if I did touch 50kg. My fear of running (I absolutely hated running) was so great that every time my coach brought the weighing scale down to the pool, I'd be in tears. But he left Malaysia in 2004 and that was the end of my weight problems.
Then it was my scoliosis. Scoliosis is a curvature of the spine, either in an 'S' or 'C' shape; if you look at me from the front, my spine curves in an 'S' shape. If you look at me from my right side, you'd see another 'S' shape – that's called kyphosis. But the main issue was scoliosis, which I've had since I was eight or nine years old. Over the years, it got a bit worse.
Being a swimmer, wearing a swimsuit so often made me very self-conscious sometimes. I'm comfortable being around people that know I have scoliosis, but when it comes to being around unfamiliar people, that's when I get really anxious and sometimes even paranoid.
Over the 14 years that I've been on the national swim team, I've encountered a few people who were concerned about my back and asked if there's a way to stop the curve or if I'm getting any treatment for it. But there were also a handful of witless people who made witless comments and sometimes even laughed about my back. I used to get hurt and upset about it, but soon realised that there's no point as these people don't know what scoliosis is and aren't willing to learn about it.
If you look at me from the side, you would think that I'm really hunched; this is because of the rib cage rotation that comes with scoliosis. But honestly speaking, hunching was my "comfortable" position. I'm not able to sit up straight for long as my lower back would start hurting. I knew then that one day I would need surgery as my curve was progressing, but that it would have to wait until I've achieved everything I set out to do in my swimming career.
Fast forward to 2016, I decided that it was time to get my surgery done. Why 2016? Because during an appointment with my surgeon, he mentioned that my curve had gotten significantly worse. Hearing those words was enough to break me.
I finally had my operation done on 8 May 2017. The first three weeks afterwards were definitely the toughest, but with great support from my family and friends, I have recovered so well and started rehabilitation.
Even today, I'm still so amazed about the outcome of my operation. I don't have a curve on the right side of my waist anymore and the hump on my back is totally gone! The best part is that I 'grew' 4.5cm! (Over the years, I became a bit shorter as my curve worsened. Before my operation, I was 163.5cm. Now I'm 168 cm!) Sitting up straight is not a problem for me anymore and I definitely love my new body.