Iconic local swimmer and water polo player Eric Yeo dies

Iconic local swimmer and water polo player Eric Yeo dies

Driven by a devotion to duty, he surprised me 33 years ago.

It was 2am on a cool November day in New Delhi, and he appeared at the door of my room at Kanishka Hotel.

"Bock is waiting for you at the hotel lobby," Eric Yeo said.

I had arranged with water polo great Tan Eng Bock, then a swimming official and Asian Games referee, to go to the airport in the Indian capital to meet swimmer Ang Peng Siong.

Ang, then the fastest man in the world over the 50 metres freestyle, was scheduled to arrive from Houston on a Pan-Am flight for the Asian Games at 3am that morning.

But I didn't realise that Yeo was coming along at the unearthly hour.

As we headed down to the lobby, Yeo told me: "I am here as an official, and it is also my job to attend to the welfare of swimmers."

Putting duty before self was the hallmark of Yeo, who died of a heart attack on Sunday morning at Gleneagles Hospital, aged 78.

A selfless, unassuming and dedicated personality, Yeo was one of Singapore's top sports figures who represented the country in swimming and water polo.

With his close buddy Tan, the Mitchell siblings - Barry, Keith and Derek - and Tan's younger brother Eng Liang, Yeo formed a formidable partnership in swimming while studying at Raffles Institution.

As a water wonder, he won three bronze medals at the 1961 South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games in Rangoon, two in the relays and the other in the 100m freestyle (1 min 1.6sec).

But it was in water polo that Yeo, the 1.8m tall defender who displayed pace, power and strength, made a bigger imprint.

Only 20, he was among the youngest players in the national squad that competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the only time the Republic's team featured at the event.

The defender was also a member of the silver-medal winning team at the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo and claimed a bronze four years later in Jakarta.

Yeo scored one of the goals in the 5-5 draw against hosts Malaysia at the 1965 Seap Games when Singapore won gold. It was the first time water polo featured at the biennial event.

The iconic sportsman bagged further water polo golds in the Seap Games in 1967, 1969, 1971 and 1973 before he retired, and subsequently took on a vice-president's post and then became national coach.

Yeo joined the police force after school and rose to the rank of Assistant Superintendant before being seconded to the Singapore Bus Service.

Said Tan, who has known Yeo for more than 60 years: "He was like a brother to me. After I retired in 1970, I handed over the water polo captaincy to Yeo, knowing full well that he was a natural leader.

"A great team man, he never failed to offer his time to anyone who needed it and was always passionate about sports.

"Also my golfing kaki, even over the last few years when he was unwell, he would always ask about updates on how our men and women's teams were doing.

"He was very excited about the upcoming SEA Games here in June, and wondered if water polo (unbeaten since 1965) could continue its supreme domination."

Daughter Dr Lynn Yeo, a senior consultant eye surgeon at Eagle Eye Centre, said: "He was a jovial, caring father, and loved a good joke.

"An Arsenal fan, he would engage in lively banter with me and my brother Paul because we are Manchester United fans.

"He loved fish-head curry, and craved mee siam, which was his last meal on Saturday night."

Singapore Swimming Association president Lee Kok Choy said: "Eric's passing is a loss to the swimming community, as he was a highly-motivated sportsman and an inspiration to many pioneering athletes around him."

Tan added: "He had a bubbly personality, and continued to be so even after his first heart attack about 30 years ago.

"But, over the last two years, when his health deteriorated and he became homebound, and later confined to a wheelchair, he became frustrated.

"I will always remember him as a good lively cop, great administrator, top-rate sportsman, and best of all, a true friend."

* Wake prayers for Yeo, who leaves behind wife Siew Hong, and children Dr Lynn and Paul, will be held at the Church of St Teresa in Kampong Bahru today and tomorrow at 8pm. The funeral mass will be on Thursday at noon and the cortege will leave at 12.45pm for Mandai for cremation at 1.45pm.

This article was first published on March 17, 2015.
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