When he trained with the rest of the national water polo men for the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, he had to swim in brown seawater in a very basic pool.
The conditions did not stop them from undergoing an intense training programme, and using it as a form of self-motivation they went on to bag a silver medal.
Tan Eng Liang was part of the team that went on to collect one more silver and a bronze at the 1962 and '66 Asiads.
He was in the team that used the same sort of motivation to win the inaugural South-east Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games water polo gold in 1965, and collected another in 1967.
That is the motivational spirit that Tan, 77, hopes the current batch of Singapore Sports School athletes will show off at the upcoming South-east Asia (SEA) Games on home soil, even if they have the state-of-the-art sporting facilities, psychological support and sport medicine aid to help them.
"They are very fortunate now compared to my pioneer generation. But they still need to have the dedication, passion and commitment to the sport," Tan told The New Paper last night at the official send-off ceremony for the Sports School athletes, ahead of the 2015 SEA Games.
"Back then we achieved so much with so little. I hope that the modern facilities (at the Sports School) will spur the new generation to do just as well or even better."
Tan and Nicholas Fang, the two co chefs de mission for the Singapore contingent at this year's Games, officiated the send-off ceremony at Woodlands for the Sport School's alumni and current students who will be representing the nation.
Comprising 101 athletes, the contingent makes up about 13 per cent of Team Singapore at the SEA Games, and Tan believes that the number will continue to grow in the future with the success of the school's programme.
STARS Established in 2004, the school has produced stars like bowler Jazreel Tan, swimmer Tao Li, sprinter Shanti Pereira and paddler Isabelle Li - all of whom are expected to finish on the podium at this year's SEA Games.
Sports School principal Tan Teck Hock says they are seeing the dividends of investing in their first batch of students who joined a decade ago when they were just 12.
He is confident that the group will return with a treasure chest of medals to send a strong message to parents wondering about sending their children to the sports institution.
"Our representation at the Games is huge, and coupled with a good performance I have no doubt that this will be a significant event to boost the school's reputation," he said.
"In the next few years we could have a happy problem where we have too few slots for too many potential athletes."
Principal Tan shrugged off talk about pressure affecting the students, adding that competing on home soil would spur them on.
"In sports there are only three podium places, but what's more important is that the SEA Games is an opportunity to show what our Singapore athletes can achieve.
"I'm confident that our athletes will utilise the home-ground advantage and give more than their 100 per cent."
This article was first published on May 28, 2015.
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