Like so many 14 year olds around the world, James Wong watched swimming sensation, Michael Phelps, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with awe. Wong wanted to be Michael Phelps one day….albeit the one-armed version.
Born without a left arm, the native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia didn’t know anything about the Paralympics at the time. But his father found a grainy YouTube video of the men’s SB8 100m breaststroke finals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, and pointed out one of the swimmers – Andreas Onea of Austria.
“My dad noticed Andreas was only a few years older than me, and he had a similar build,” said Wong. “He felt relatable. I watched how he swam in that video and tried to see how he was doing it. Basically, that video kind of helped set in stone the vision of what I wanted to achieve. Prior to this, I didn’t actually know what para sport even looked like.”
Eleven years later, Wong was at the World Para Swimming Championships in London. It was a tough time. He was jetlagged. He swam poorly. His chances of making the Tokyo2020 Paralympics were diminished. But he finally got to meet Onea, who was pleasantly surprised to meet Wong. After all, five other swimmers finished better than him at the finals during that competition, so he wondered why Wong liked Onea’s swimming so much.
But Wong then told Onea the story of the YouTube video in 2008. Onea said he was touched.
The Paralympics can have an impact on my life and on the world population. I realized that in 2019, when I was at the London world championships in swimming, and James told me that the first swimming competition he ever saw was the final at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics on the 100-meter breaststroke. And this was the day, he told me, that he wanted to compete in the Paralympics, that he wanted to be a professional swimmer like Andreas Onea. I was emotionally impressed by the story when he told me. Without knowing me, because of me, just seeing me swim, he wanted to swim also.
Andreas Onea, who won a bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke SB8 at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, competed at the Tokyo2020 Paralympics. He did not medal this time, but Onea has developed a successful media career in television and print, as well as a motivational speaker. He understands how important it is for persons with disabilities, some 15% of the entire world population, to be given opportunities to lead fuller lives that help them approach their full potential.
“We are 15% of the world population,” said Onea. “In Austria, companies are looking for talent. They are fighting over the best talent for their workforce. This is a high potential pool that no one is tapping into. People think they will have problems with figuring out how to bring them into the workforce. These issues are things proven wrong. There are so many companies doing amazing things with people with disabilities.”
Wong told me that swimming gave him those opportunities.
In 2008, he was spotted by the national swimming head coach of Malaysia, Lewin Lim, and was told he had potential as a swimmer. Over the next 11 years, Wong was introduced to a whole new world of training, travel and competition. He competed for the first time in a tournament in Borneo, which was another part of Malaysia. But it could have been a foreign country as the people and the culture felt so different to Wong.
And when he came away with a gold and silver medal a the 2009 Asian Youth Games in Tokyo, Japan, he imagined one day winning Paralympic gold. Guangzhou in China, Berlin in Germany, Solo in Indonesia, Naypyidaw in Myanmar – Wong was going places he never could imagine.
In 2012, he moved to Australia. His parents thought it would be great if their son could get an education overseas. Because Wong’s hero, para-swimming champion, Matt Cowdrey, was from Australia, Wong looked down under and targeted the University of Adelaide, which was located relatively near the Norwood Swimming Club.
Wong worked hard to balance academic life and the rigors of training at the world-class level. At the 2014 Asian para Games in Incheon, South Korea, Wong finished 4th in the 50-meter Freestyle S8, behind the top two in the world, and another who was a finalist at the 2012 London Paralympics. And in 2016, he graduated from university.
Wong did not make the Malaysian team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. In fact, Wong has never competed in a Paralympics. But para-swimming changed his life.
The 2019 World Para Swimming Championships was his last major competition, but it gave him the credentials to apply for and receive permanent residence in Australia through a talent visa, not something that the Australian government hands out liberally.
Wong has continued his studies and is pursuing his masters in accounting and finance at the University of Adelaide, which he hopes to leverage into an opportunity at a Big Four accounting firm after he graduates in 2022. He’s happy about his future, something that he owes to swimming.
“Through swimming I met an amazing number of people I would not have met otherwise,” he said. “Without it, I’d have a completely different life.”