Swimming With Scoliosis

Photo Courtesy: Cai Lin Khoo

By Jinq En Phee, Swimming World College Intern.

Scoliosis is an abnormal lateral curvature of the spin that affects about two percent of the population, including children and adults. While some people with scoliosis may take up swimming lessons to strengthen their back muscles, other swimmers continue to excel even once they develop the condition.

Australian distance swim star Jessica Ashwood has raced in two Olympic Games while managing her S shaped spine. Malaysian Olympian Cai Lin Khoo recently underwent surgery to correct the curve she swam with competitively for two decades.

Khoo was diagnosed with scoliosis when she was eight years old. Her mom noticed that her back didn’t look the same anymore and took her to a doctor. Scoliosis runs in her family; a few of her cousins have it as well.


Photo Courtesy: Cai Lin Khoo

Despite the diagnosis, in the past 14 years, Khoo qualified for two Olympics Games, five World Championships, two Asian Games, and two Commonwealth Games. Khoo specializes in distance freestyle events, and she currently holds four individual Malaysian national records in the 200 meter freestyle, 400 meter freestyle, 800 meter freestyle and 200 meter butterfly.

Khoo learned to swim at the age of three. Her eldest sister took swim lessons to help her asthma, and Khoo tagged along to swim practices. She then started competitive swimming at the age of seven, and her passion for swimming grew stronger as she got older.

Like every other athlete, she had a dream: to be a part of the Olympic Games. “I said that when I was 12, I didn’t even know how big the Olympic Games were,” said Khoo.

When she turned 13, she became really competitive, and she was so determined to succeed in swimming that she did not allow anything to get in her way, even scoliosis. “I had a huge passion for it [the sport] and nothing was going to come in between my swimming and myself,” said Khoo.

But with a big dream comes sacrifice. In addition to constantly suffering from lower back pains, Khoo also suffered from shoulder pains too. The imbalance in her spine had definitely taken a huge toll on her shoulders. She overcompensated with one shoulder when the other side got injured, creating an injury cycle for both of her shoulders.

Due to her condition, Kho’s training regime usually differed from her teammates’. During dryland sessions or in the weight room, Khoo was limited to bodyweight exercises and exercises that didn’t require heavy lifting. Exercises like squats or deadlifts were off limits because they would only hurt her spine.



Photo Courtesy: Cai Lin Khoo

Asked if she thinks that scoliosis was a disadvantage for her compared to other swimmers, she replied, “I’ve never really looked at it as a disadvantage, because you’ll never know what other people might be suffering or going through.”

Getting a surgery to correct her spine had been on her mind since she was 16 years old. But there was only a 50 percent chance that she could make a comeback to competitive swimming scene again, so Khoo decided to delay the surgery.

Even with the decision to delay surgery, she was not going to let scoliosis interfere with her dreams. Khoo set a goal for herself. “I wanted to swim and achieve what I’ve set out to achieve before I get the surgery done,” said Khoo, and she went on and achieved that.

Earlier this year, at the age of 28, she finally decided to get the surgery done. “At some point in my life I would need to get this operation done,” she said. “Because if it don’t, it will just keep getting worse and sooner or later my internal organs and my lungs will be compressed by the curvature of my spine.”

Looking back at her swimming career, Khoo regrets nothing. Asked if she would have done anything differently, including fixing her spine first before going all out in her swimming career, she replied, “No, I wouldn’t have done anything differently because whatever I did paid off and I managed to achieve all my goals.”

Khoo took a powerful lesson away from her competitive swimming journey, “Never give up and just focus on your dreams because nobody can bring you down except yourself.”

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


  1. Nat Jo

    Means so much to me with a 13 year old with Scoliosis

    • Megan Smith

      Wow, thays interesting. I wonder if thats what lead to my shoulder as well. Just thinking about it, my shoulder is the same side thats lower because of my scoliosis. Xxx

    • Irene Blair

      Come and have some Bowen, balances the body, can help scoliosis

    • Cheryl Mckay

      Megan Smith.you should consider thisxx

    • Megan Smith

      I have actually thought about it. Sounds really good. Xx

  2. Swim mom

    I’d love to hear about swimmers who have had a fusion surgery and then gone on to compete at national level meets. My son needs surgery, but we (and his doctor) are hesitant because of what impact it most likely would have on his swimming.

  3. Kaysea Ramsey

    Anne Tutwiler-Salmon, I thought this might be interesting to read!!

  4. Penny Rollo

    Chloe maybe show your mum this article

  5. Aline Delno

    Marjolein Delno I thought this might be interesting to read!!

    • Bradley Vincent

      Beautiful story.. luckily for me mine is not as bad as hers. But still shows that it’s all a mental game nothing can stop someone if they want it bad enough . Thanks for tagging bestie

  6. Tjitske Ismail Tuinhof

    I suffer from scoliosis and have been swimming my whole life to have less pain ??‍♀️

  7. Cai Lin

    Thank you for the write up!!! ❤❤

  8. Debra Murane Eagleton

    I personally know several swimmers who have scoliosis. Swimming has helped them.

  9. avatar
    Kerry Budd McMahon

    I was a collegiate swimmer with severe scoliosis. This article hits close to home. I was first diagnosed around 14 – my coaches saw me swimming like a snake and urged me to go see my doctor. I was an All-American at that point, and my back definitely impacted my future swimming career. I managed to do fairly well considering, however it was very tough. I’m still in physical therapy today and need to get the surgery. I would love to know more of Cari’s story if possible.