SEA Games: 12 days to go

SEA Games: 12 days to go
Quah Ting Wen set two individual records and shared three relay marks in the supersuit in 2009, which remain untouched till now.

Sporting history, so you may think, should not just be preserved but paraded in the athlete's home. Shining trophies in glass cases. Certificates framed like law degrees. Medals draped on a wall like golden paintings.

Except that the four athletes gathered in a room at the OCBC Aquatic Centre, who own 100 SEA Games golds between them, do not flaunt their treasure.

Joscelin Yeo swears, err, umm, that her mother used to keep her 40 golds. Quah Zheng Wen, 18, says his mum doesn't like clutter, so his single one is in a vase in the attic. Ang Peng Siong insists his 20 are in his old house somewhere. Patricia Chan says her 39 are safely stored in a special box.

Maybe what they're trying to tell us is that it's not the medals that matter, it's the winning of them that they cherish. Medals may lose their polish but never the memories of what these athletes did and where they came from.

Chan, 61, can still remember being nine, climbing onto the bonnet of a car at 5am, then across a seven-foot fence - with the aid of her coaching father - and into the unlighted pool at the Chinese Swimming Club "steaming with chlorine". Think of it as a beautiful desperation.

Ang, 54, dived into more glittering waters, as a boy "mucking around" in pools where he found coins and gold chains stuck in old filtration systems. That gold had to be returned; but gold that he later earned he would keep.

Chan swam in a no-Speedo era; Yeo swam in a no-YouTube time where she had to record the Olympics at home on video. Time separates these swimmers but excellence unites them.

When a measured Yeo, 36, speaks of swimming she sounds like a mermaid: "I loved being in the water. I found swimming challenging because it doesn't come as naturally as walking or running. The challenge of mastering a stroke intrigued me."

Quah is a child of the present, as lean as a Malacca cane, his motivation as pure as the water that must run in his veins. He's had the benefit of covered pools and sports science, yet it's not perks that drive him but perseverance. "Even without all this," he says with grave intensity, "I would still be in the sport."

Swimming - a bit like gymnastics - allows for multiple medals to be won in a single Games. In weightlifting you can win only one at each Games. So, too, in hockey. Yet it is still astonishing that swimming has won roughly 37 per cent of Singapore's total golds and has only once not won a gold at a Games. These people, and their sport, have set the standard.

In this room, cramped with talent, the swimmers dissect their waterworld into brilliant parts. Even now you can feel Chan's ambition as she describes her attitude on the blocks: "Take no prisoners. Silver and bronze medals never interested me." She only won gold.

Yeo talks eloquently of her preparation, describing a visualisation - where she is able to see where she is in a race - so vividly it is almost eerie. Think of it this way. Think of her imagining her race and holding a stopwatch. Think of her swimming the perfect race in her mind and stopping the stopwatch as she touches the wall. The time she sees in her mind is exactly the time on the stopwatch.

All of them swam at a SEA Games at home, all of them are stuffed with memories. Ang, a man of gravitas, can still see "crowds standing on the rooftop of Toa Payoh (stadium). You could feel the intensity, it was electrifying. You know all these people are watching and wanting to hear Majulah Singapura." This is the power of athletes, to have a national anthem played just because of you.

Quah, 18, listens to stories of history even as he readies to make his own. Singapore swimmers have owned the SEA Games, had scattered success at the Asian Games and still dream of Olympic glory. We have more pools yet need a wider pool. We have science yet, says Quah, perhaps we need a hardier spirit.

What he found in a trip to America was foreign swimmers "who could just step up and race under any conditions. Here we're very comfortable in our element. They can race up to three times in three weeks and swimmers here, me included, are not as accustomed to this multiple shaves-and-race culture".

Quah, who has 12 events at these SEA Games, knows what he has to do in the water and he knows what he doesn't like about his life in the water. It's those 4.50am wake-up calls long before daylight even shows up. Yeo and Chan, both of whom rose at 4.30am, laugh in agreement, grateful that they at least are no longer prisoners of their alarm clocks.

Ang's pet peeve wasn't a clock but the cold, especially the chilly waters he dived into to train in Mexico City in the early 1980s. But perhaps he should be grateful the water was clean. After all, at the 1969 Seap Games in Rangoon, Burma, Chan can remember pieces of algae floating in the water, the sort of seaweed sandwich swimmers would rather avoid as they surface for air.

Ah well, on the way to greatness all sorts of challenges must be devoured.


Swimming is one sport which has seen many siblings compete alongside each other.

There were the famous Chan siblings Vicky, Bernard, Alex, Patricia, Roy and Mark, the Oon brothers Jin Teik and Jin Gee, as well as Desmond and Gerald Koh.

The current team also boasts the three Quah siblings Ting Wen, Zheng Wen and Jing Wen.

In 1982, Ang Peng Siong won the 50m freestyle at the US National Championships in a world-best time of 22.69sec. It is currently the oldest national record.

In 2009, Speedo invented the now banned full-body rubber suits, which led to many world records falling. Singapore records were not spared, and 12 of the 40 national marks set in 2009 remain unsurpassed. The suits were outlawed just a year later.

This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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