Clarissa Cheam Finishes First Collegiate Season at 15 Years Old

Photo Courtesy: Soka Photography Office

By Cassidy Lavigne, Swimming World College Intern.

Clarissa Cheam completed her first year as a collegiate swimmer at Soka University of America at fifteen years old this spring. Cheam was born in Arizona, but raised in Penang, Malaysia where she was home schooled for several years before committing to Soka University and moving back to Arizona with her family.

Cheam made a name for herself in her first season as the team’s breaststroker, breaking the 200 IM school record twice, as well as being a part of two other school relay team records. Cheam would have been the youngest student at all the schools she was accepted to.

Swimming World: Can you explain how you ended up being 15 and in college? Was your home schooling accelerated in Malaysia?

CC: My parents pulled me out of public school when I was ten, and I’ve been home schooled ever since then. Even when I was public school, I had workbooks with more advanced math, science and English that I’d do for fun when I was done with the homework assigned in school. So when my parents finally suggested homeschooling, I jumped for joy, because what 10 year old would be happy to not have to go to school?

But even though I abhorred public school, I still had a burning love for learning, so I learned more about the subjects I liked–math, sciences, literature, that sort of thing–and less of the subjects I felt were less important to me–like Bahasa Melayu, and moral, which were both required in Malaysian public schools.


Photo Courtesy: Soka Photography Office

SW: Did you skip any grades? How were you able to be college ready 2-3 years before most of your peers?

CC: I skipped about three grades. Thinking about it, I don’t really remember which grades I skipped, but rather just sort of accelerated to the point where I am now. I think me being home schooled is one of the reasons why I could be ready so early… I could study and learn anytime and anywhere I wanted.

There’s so much less stress when there isn’t any peer pressure or parental pressure to get straight A’s and because of that I had a great time even though I was learning at a much faster pace than my peers. I took my SAT’s about 4 years earlier than average. I also have intense concentration, so if I set my mind to studying or completing something, I can shut out any disturbances and go on until I decide to stop.

SW: What was the college recruiting process like as coaches realized how young you were?

CC: I made sure I mentioned my age when I sent emails to coaches expressing my interest in joining their swim teams. Most coaches were pretty enthusiastic about me, though several coaches had to reconsider because they weren’t sure if the school would take me in. There were a lot of conversations between the admissions councilors and swim coaches about me, and whether I would be allowed to live in the normal dorms with regular students, live with my parents, or not be able to attend at all.

SW: You’re young to be competing at the collegiate level, when did you start swimming?

CC: I started swimming when I was nine years old, at the end of 2010, so I’ve been swimming for almost six years now.

SW: What was your training like?

CC: I had a really tough coach. She was from China and she was super strict with everything, so she pushed me really hard. So I guess that might be one of the factors why.

Photo Courtesy: Soka Photography Office

Author Lavigne cheering on Cheam at Soka University Aquatics Center, Photo Courtesy: Soka Photography Office

SW: Is there any grueling set that you still remember?

CC: The hardest set I swum was 40 x 100, and we swam in meters so it was tough. They were on a 1:30 interval, which is fast for me.

SW: You’re a core member of Soka’s swim team, what is it like being the youngest on the team and having such an important role?

CC: Sometimes it’s intimidating because I feel so much less experienced than my teammates. But the older members are really nice and take care of me. They inspire me, so it’s really good actually–to learn from the older members.

SW: When you’re racing against athletes who are in their 20’s or 5-6 years older than you, what are your thoughts? How do you mentally ‘get in the zone’ to swim your own race?

CC: Again, it’s intimidating because they’re all older than me. But, I feel like it’s a privilege to be able to swim with older swimmers and watch their races and to learn from them. I can ask them for advice. And I feel accomplished when I catch up to them and improve my times.

Photo Courtesy: Soka Photography Office

Photo Courtesy: Soka Photography Office

SW: What are you most looking forward to in your college swimming career?

CC: Since I’m here really young, I’m looking forward to continuing to experience the life of a collegiate athlete and college swimming. Since I was home-schooled, I’ve never had to juggle swimming and academics. Learning how to balance that is something I’ve been enjoying as part of the process.

SW: Do you have any advice for younger swimmers competing against older or more experienced ones?

CC: Don’t be scared of them! They’re really nice and if you have any questions they’ll help you. You’re as good as they are. And even if you’re not as fast right now, you’ll grow up to be as fast as they are.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.



  1. Chris Ho

    Congrats to her once again, bro.

  2. avatar

    Great! ??????

  3. Ang Alex

    Kang Tze Wei penang pride

Author: Cassidy Lavigne

Cassidy Lavigne is a rising senior at Soka University of America. She swims sprint-mid-distance freestyle and butterfly for the Lions in the NAIA. She grew up in Marin County, CA.

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