Freida Lim always loved the pool. She craved being in and around the water in any way she could, which led her to competitive swimming as a child.
Unfortunately, after she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid, Lim’s swimming future was in jeopardy because of muscle overexertion. She was forced to adjust her lifestyle as a 14-year old and choose another, less endurance-focused, sport. She settled on diving and was able to stay around the pool that she loved, without risking her own personal health.
“I had to switch to a sport that didn’t require endurance or for me to do a lot of cardio because I had a bit of muscle-wasting,” said Lim, a diver for the University of Georgia. “My swimming coach was actually the one that asked me to try diving because I had done gymnastics when I was younger.”
But Lim didn’t just “try” diving. She excelled. Now, with the rapidly approaching 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Lim has a chance to make history and become the first female diver from Singapore to qualify for an Olympic Games. There are mounting concerns about whether the Summer Olympics can go on as scheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Tokyo Games are scheduled for July 29-Aug. 9.
Even with her late introduction to the sport, Lim was among the first to join her country’s revamped National Diving Team. Singapore established the current iteration of its diving program in 2009, and Lim joined three years later with a natural knack for the sport.
Beginning under the tutelage of Singapore’s head coach, Xu Jie, Lim quickly rose to prominence among the small Singaporean team, which eventually opened opportunities to pursue collegiate diving in the United States. Her older sister, Meagan, arrived in the U.S. three years earlier to swim competitively at Purdue and guided Lim through the intricacies of moving halfway around the world.
“(Meagan) told me about her experiences being on a swim and dive team where she had a ton of fun,” Lim said. “It made it not hard for my family because we’d already had someone come and tell us about everything, so she really helped me through the process.”
After cold emailing and researching dozens of American universities, Lim decided to attend Clemson. Despite never visiting the school, Lim cited her budding relationship with coach Leslie Hasselbach Adams as the primary reason for her choice.
But Lim’s diving career was thrown another curveball at the end of her All-ACC freshman season. Clemson abruptly ended its diving program, forcing Lim to re-evaluate her options and search for the next stop in her college journey.
“When the team was first told that they were cutting the program, I was kind of shocked,” Lim said. “But I was pretty fast. The first thing I texted my mom was that I needed to transfer because the whole reason I came to the U.S. was to dive.”
After a hectic March and April in 2017, Lim finally settled on Georgia, a school and pool she was familiar with after having trained on the 10-meter platform inside Georgia’s Gabrielsen Natatorium during her time at Clemson. The rising sophomore prepared to travel the 75 miles from Clemson to Athens to join coach Dan Laak and an esteemed diving program.
After Laak’s departure from Georgia the following year, the Bulldogs brought on two-time Olympian Chris Colwill to head the team. Colwill graduated from Georgia in 2008 and had a deep connection with Laak during his collegiate days.
For Lim, Colwill became her third coach in three years, forcing her to adapt to a coaching change once again. However, with Colwill’s combination of youthfulness and Olympic experience, Lim felt that developing a relationship with her newest coach came easy.
“In my mind I was worried about getting used to another coach again,” Lim said. “... But I got along with Chris really well. He’s young, so he’s understanding, and it’s nice that the memory of being an athlete himself is fresh in his mind.”
Colwill quickly recognized that Lim not only had impressive talent, but also an intense passion for diving, giving the two something to bond over. The Georgia grad represented the United States in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as 2012 Olympics in London and believed his vast international experience brought something unique to Lim’s training.
“I do think (my background) helps, as far as how to create routines for yourself and embracing the moment and really feeling comfortable with where you are,” Colwill said. “Diving is a very subjective sport, and it can be very demanding as far as perfection. I think when you create a mindset to help athletes relax a little bit, I think that can go a long way. I think that’s where I can really come in and help.”
Alongside Colwill, Lim improved once again in her junior season at Georgia, placing 15th at NCAA Championships in her specialty, the 10-meter platform.
Immediately her focus turned to the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea where she finished 20th of 38 competitors in platform, narrowly missing out on a spot in the event’s semifinals. Lim improved on her 2017 World Championships appearance in Budapest where she finished 34th.
“I actually had a lot of fun at that meet,” Lim said. “I was still so young, and I had no expectations. Usually when I go to these big meets, I generally don’t put pressure on myself, I’m just there to observe and dive the best that I can.”
Lim returned to Georgia for her senior season and continued to excel in the SEC. However, her collegiate career was cut short after the NCAA announced the cancellation of athletic events for the remainder of the year. She’ll never get the chance to dive in her final NCAA championship meet.
With the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo taking place in August, Lim still has one more chance to qualify in platform at the FINA Diving World Cup in April. To do so, Lim would have to finish in the top 18 of competitors at the World Cup meet, not including the 12 divers who have already qualified for the Olympics by reaching the finals at last year’s World Championships.
In December, 22-year-old Jonathan Chan became the first diver from Singapore ever to qualify for the Olympics by placing first in the 10-meter platform event at the 2019 Asian Games. If Lim performs well in at the World CUp, she will have the chance to join him in Tokyo in August, which would make her the first woman to represent Singapore in Olympic diving.
“I think she has what it takes to make it to the Olympics,” Colwill said. “She’s proven that she’s the 20th best diver in the world at this point. Clearly that says a lot about her and that she has what it takes. For her, it’s now just to create the mindset and have her believe in it more. Just focus on one dive at a time, and I think she can do it.”
After 2020, it’s unclear what Lim’s future with diving holds. She plans to graduate in May from Georgia with a double major in dietetics and culinary science and nutrition and hopes to pursue a career in that field after graduation.
For now, the focus remains on the Olympic qualifying meet in April. While Lim is on the cusp of history for her country, she’s more concerned about what her performance could mean for the broader future of her native country’s diving program.
“I would be able to be an inspiration to the younger and up-and-coming divers, considering Singapore has implemented new programs to find young talent. It would help give them more motivation to train harder and keep diving, so hopefully (I) could help Singapore diving grow.”
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