By Kimberly Kwek
While Singapore has long established itself as a regional swimming powerhouse, recognition on the international stage is still lagging behind. A change, however, may be on the horizon.
Joseph Schooling gave the Republic a glimpse of global sporting success when he won Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games last year, pipping the United States’ 23-time champion Michael Phelps in the 100 metre butterfly event.
Following that success, expectations were high for both Schooling and national teammate Quah Zheng Wen at the 17th FINA World Championships in July. But they fell short, with Schooling only managing a bronze in one of his three events, and Quah failing to get a podium placing.
But the duo picked themselves up at the 29th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, and were part of the team that brought home 19 gold, six silver and 10 bronze medals.
SEA Games medallist Amanda Lim, 24, a final-year Sports Science and Management (SSM) student, believes team spirit was the reason for their recent success.
Lim, who won the women’s 50m freestyle for the fifth consecutive time and bagged a gold medal in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay, said: “We are always cheering each other on and depending on one another. This was quite different from the previous few SEA Games that we had.”
National teammate and final-year SSM student Pang Sheng Jun, 25, explained this difference: “Last time we used to just be individuals training, trying to be better by ourselves.
“But now, the national training squad is trying to get better together, and that is our biggest strength that we have moving into 2018.”
Pang, who won three medals — a gold, silver and bronze — at this year’s SEA Games, said this was the result of combined training at the National Training Centre (NTC) at OCBC Aquatic Centre, which is located at the Singapore Sports Hub.
Since January 2015, swimmers have been training under a single team of coaches, as opposed to before when they trained individually at different clubs under different coaches.
This move has resolved conflicts of personal interest that used to exist among coaches from the different clubs, said Pang.
He added: “Right now, the coaches are united as one Singapore to try and make our swimmers better.”
Head coach of the NTC, Mr Gary Tan, is someone who is familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the Team Singapore athletes. The two-time Olympian has overseen the training of local athletes for nine years.
Mr Tan currently works with newly-appointed national head coach Stephan Widmer, who has groomed Olympic swimming champions Libby Trickett, Leisel Jones and Jessicah Schipper.
Widmer, an Australian, started his tenure in Singapore in July and will take a more active role in training Team Singapore swimmers after their post-SEA Games break.
Lim said: “He has so much experience and he has been saying that we have a lot more to learn, so much more room for improvement, so I think under his guidance we can definitely move on to the international level.”
Lim also stressed the importance of developing the right mindset, which they have been working on with psychologists.
“The mindset last time was that we’re such a small country and we can’t improve and compete on a global level. But that’s not true now because we’re actually moving in the right direction,” she said.
“We have to think and believe that we can do it because once we overcome the thinking that we can’t, it’s 50 per cent of the battle gone.”
While the government has provided national athletes with a lot of support, there are still steps to be taken to keep Singapore in the lane towards international success.
“I think people are still afraid to try the sporting path because the safest way would just be to study, get a piece of paper and a normal job,” Pang said, adding that he considers himself lucky because his parents have always supported his sporting endeavours.
For Lim, excelling in both swimming and studies has always been a priority for her, which means some sacrifices have to be made. She had to spend an extra semester in NTU because it was difficult to cope with her workload on top of her swimming duties.
“It was really hard to see all my friends graduate last year and I still have one semester to go. But in order to have the best of both worlds, I need a way to go about doing it,” she said.
Despite the challenges, the future looks bright for the Singapore swimmers. At this year’s SEA Games, Team Singapore fielded young up-and-coming talents who exceeded expectations, including 14-year-old Gan Ching Hwee who clinched the bronze medal for the women’s 400m individual medley.
“The kids these days definitely have very high pressure on themselves, which helps them with their performance. They want to train harder,” said Lim.
“We’re definitely moving in the right direction.”