Change of direction paid dividends

Change of direction paid dividends
A parallel experience in his own teenage years helped coach Yu Lei find the correct advice for Paul Tan in 1999. He told the promising swimmer that his real future lay in water polo, echoing advice that he had been given in his own adolescence.

Singapore water polo player Paul Tan's talent in the sport stood out from a young age, much like his 1.85m frame in a crowd these days.

He had lungs of steel, clocked sub-10 minute times for his 2.4km run in school, and could swim up and down the pool all day long.

He had height - Tan was 1.76m when he was 13 - and great hand-eye coordination, a trait he attributes to mother Rosalind, a former national basketballer and netballer.

In fact, the left-hander was so dominant, when he was representing Anglo-Chinese School (Barker) in the schools national water polo championships, he used to score half or more of the team's goals.

Yet while he has been a fixture in the national team since 2003, Tan's career could have had a different trajectory - if not for Yu Lei, his former coach at ACS (Barker).

Because, as the trainee teacher now readily admits, Paul Tan the national water polo player could easily have been Paul Tan the retired national swimmer.

Said Tan, 30: "I was representing my school in swimming and water polo. I started swimming when I was seven, I thought I was good at it, so I stuck with it."

An accomplished distance freestyle swimmer, Tan made the national age group squad when he was 13.

But coach Yu, a no-nonsense man, had different ideas for his star player.

One day in 1999, Yu, who had just taken over as the school's water polo coach, sat his protege, then 15, down, and said something that would define Tan's career.

Said Yu, 43: "I told Paul it was time to give up swimming, and focus more on water polo.

"Water polo players have a longer shelf life, plus I knew he definitely had the potential to represent Singapore. He was team-oriented, had good awareness, and was very agile in the water.

"With swimming, I was not so sure if he could be as successful."

This was not the selfish opinion of a success-hungry school coach eager to hold on to his star player. Yu had been through exactly the same transition.

Although he was a swimmer with the Sichuan state team, Yu switched to water polo when he was 13 - also on the advice of his coach, who felt that Yu was hitting a plateau.

It paved the way for a 10-year career with the China national team, and two Asian Games outings. Yu finally stopped playing water polo at 36.

The conversation enlightened Tan. He went for fewer swim training sessions, and focused more on water polo.

Said Tan: "After the chat I realised I did have the potential to do well in water polo. It helped that he went through the same thing, and I was convinced."

Coach Yu also had to persuade Tan's mother, who had spent hours poolside watching her son swim, that water polo was right for her child.

In hindsight, the switch proved to be a masterstroke.

Tan's game picked up rapidly under the tutelage of Yu. In less than a year, his passing became sharper and faster. His movement was more efficient.

Four years after that chat, Tan made his national team debut. Since then, he has won three SEA Games gold medals, and was also part of the team that finished sixth at the last Asiad in Guangzhou.

Said Tan: "Coach Yu helped shaped my career. I don't think I would've lasted beyond 20 if I had continued with swimming. I was good, but I wasn't fantastic.

"Giving up swimming is a decision I don't regret at all."

Next Sunday, Tan heads to South Korea for his second, and, in all likelihood, last Asian Games.

At the Dream Park Aquatics Centre, he hopes to help the team better their Guangzhou 2010 feat. But whether he succeeds or not, Tan's achievement is already testament to the impact his former coach had on him.

siangyee@sph.com.sg

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