SEA Games 2015: Mindset more than medals

PHOTO: The Straits Times

One second is an eternity in swimming, where a tenth of a second could be the difference between victor and vanquished.

A hundredth, the invisible sieve separating the good and soon forgotten swimmers from those whose names fill the history books.

The clock rules the pool, the swimmers its subjects, chasing its hands, its numbers.

Singapore's swimmers have hit all-time high numbers at the OCBC Aquatic Centre at this SEA Games, winning 42 medals, 23 of them gold - surpassing the 21-gold mark set 42 years ago at the 1973 South-east Asian Peninsular Games.

But, for national coach Sergio Lopez, it wasn't the numbers that marked the biggest win at the Games, as the swimming competition ended on Thursday.

Singapore's real victory was in hearts and minds - unquantifiable.

"I am very happy, not just for the 23 gold medals. I am very happy because of the shift in mindset that we have been able to create, within the team and hopefully within the swimming community," said the Spaniard (right) in his post-mortem yesterday.

"I came here to help and create a mindset of sustainable success. The 23 gold medals don't create that, but what it creates is thinking as a team."

Lopez related a story of swimmers who told him they would not be able to train much in the weeks leading up to their school's examinations.

"But not one of them came to me and said, 'In the next three weeks, I need to study, can we think how I can train somehow because of this?'," said Lopez, who refused to believe that students spend eight hours a day with their heads buried in books.

"(It's about) Facebook and this and that, and studying but doing something else, like I am going to take a nap, go to the mall because I have been studying for three hours," said Lopez.

"So that's (the) little things we need to work on. But the swimmers have been working on that. They are learning to understand the back-ups and it's not a bad thing."

He gave the example of 22-year-old Roanne Ho, who struggled with things like "the discipline of being on time", but delivered in the end, striking gold in the 50m backstroke (31.45 seconds) at the Games - in record time.


Lopez hailed the nine-gold, nine-Games record performance of Joseph Schooling, whom he believes can medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next year.

"I think his goal has to be to win a medal. I think he has the potential and the mindset. Eddie Reese (Schooling's coach) who was here with us earlier - he believes the same thing," said Lopez, again reiterating the importance of having the mindset of a champion.

And if the Republic's swimmers can follow through with the mindset change that they are starting to adopt, Lopez believes the sky is the limit.

"I don't even think about that, because if I came here to help the swimmers shine in South-east Asia, I think I make the wrong choice of job. I think the job is keep working to be excellent at the highest level possible," he said.

"So if we do that, we are going to shine sooner than we want at the Olympic level, and the SEA and Asian levels will be taken care of."

While the 2016 Olympics may come too soon for some in the Singapore bullpen, Lopez expects some magic from the swimmers at the 2020 Tokyo Games, a stunning prediction for a country that has yet to win an Olympic medal of any colour in the pool.

"I think from Singapore, we can have the possibility of people thinking about a couple of medals and I think we have the possibility of making many finals."

For Lopez, the look on the face of a protege when he's done good and feels like "the most powerful person in the world", is more valuable to him as a coach than just winning medals.

Watching his team in the pool over the course of the competition has given him many defining memories, but he wants Singapore's swimmers to take things to the next level.

"I don't want to take away what happened in the past six days, but we got to move on," said Lopez.

"We are here for something else, more than just medals."

This article was first published on June 13, 2015.
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