Inheriting the golden DNA

Inheriting the golden DNA
From left: Swimmers Patricia Chan, Ang Peng Siong, Joscelin Yeo and Quah Zheng Wen have 100 SEA Games gold medals between them. The veterans’ stories bolster Quah’s belief that a stout spirit is more vital than top facilities and sports science.



SEA Games

1977-1993: 20 golds

Asian Games

1982: 100m free gold,

100m fly bronze

1986: 100m free bronze,

4x100m free bronze

1990: 50m free silver, 4x100m free bronze

Sportsman of the Year

1983, 1984 and 1985

Strong, sober, swift, Ang Peng Siong wears pride more comfortably than he does regret. In 1982, he did what no swimming Singaporean has done: He set the fastest time on the planet. Unequalled on the earth that year in the 50m freestyle. Two years later was the Los Angeles Olympics, a medal was possible, except the event was not included.

But Ang just shrugs, his memories are happier ones. Of the 1983 home Games and the 100m freestyle.

He was in Lane 4, compatriot Tay Khoon Hean in Lane 3, and Indonesian Lukman Niode in Lane 5. The Singaporeans stitched together a strategy: If Ang - who was always going to win - swam at the right speed, and did not get too far ahead, he could block Lukman's view of where Tay was on the way back to the finish.

Ang did exactly that, Tay won silver, and this is what the great man remembers most: Teamwork.

And just by the way: that 22.69 sec he swam on Aug 20, 1982 in the 50m free. It's still the national record. Thirty-three years later.




SEA Games

1991-2005: 40 golds

Asian Games

1994: 100m fly bronze

2002: 100m fly bronze

Sportswoman of the Year

1994, 1996 and 2000

Joscelin Yeo's memory is full of gold. So many years and Games and races and 40 victories. And yet she also has style and grace. For when asked to pick a memory, a moment, from a Games at home, she reaches for Ang Peng Siong's 50m freestyle.

"I think it ended up being his final race. He was our team captain, we all knew what was at stake and what he was trying to do. And we were all up there behind him, everybody in the stands was up there behind him, just kind of willing him on.

"Sometimes I think about it and I can still see the race and it gives me goose bumps. That's the kind of effect you have swimming on home ground. Everybody there cheering you and willing you on."


"There's always pressure. Athletes have to deal with pressure. But I see the crowd as an advantage."

Evidently she did. Ang Peng Siong won his gold in 50m that year. Yeo simply won nine.





1965-1973: 39 golds

Asian Games

1966: 100m back, 200m IM,

4x100m free bronzes

1970: 400m free, 4x100m free 4x100m medley silvers; 100m free, 200m free bronzes

Sportswoman of the Year

1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972

Forty-plus years later you can still hear the disappointment echoing in Pat Chan's voice. By 1972, she had won the Sportswoman of the Year award five times consecutively. Which is when, she says, a new rule was instituted: No athlete could win the award more than five times.

To her, it didn't make sense: it was like telling a champion there is a ceiling on winning, a limit to achievement. Disappointed, she decided to stop swimming in 1972: "It stripped the joy out of breaking barriers, it negated the whole point of setting new goals and standards. I'd had enough, so I walked away."

Except Singapore was hosting the SEA Games the following year and Chan says she received a phone call from a senior person asking that she return to the pool.

In what was the "hardest year" of her swimming life, both mentally and emotionally, she competed again.

One last SEA Games.

Six more medals.

All gold, but of course.




SEA Games

2011: 1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze

2013: 2 golds, 3 silvers, 1 bronze

Sportsboy of the Year


Eventually, finally, Quah Zheng Wen doesn't want to just "go to an Olympics and be a participant". He doesn't want to be there just "for the experience". He doesn't want to be "somebody standing by the pool".

He wants to be somebody.

At 18, he is learning. About himself and the competition. About how American swimmers - as he discovered on a trip there - travel across their country, compete in different weather, in uncovered pools, in varying environments.

And they are always ready to race: "No matter what, they try their best."

It is a sort of mental conditioning Singapore swimmers have to find. For as Quah says: "Here I have seen first-hand with some of our swimmers that when they're faced with a little bit of difficulty they just kind of back down. They see someone faster and can't really comprehend it. But you just have to get over that mental barrier to beat someone who is faster."

In a way, when he says these words, he's also reminding himself of what he has to do.

This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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