NAYPYIDAW- When the SEA Games swimming programme begins today at the Wunna Theikdi Swimming Pool, the pertinent question is not which country will come up tops.
But rather who among the Singapore swimmers will win in the battle of the sexes.
With a team tipped to be the strongest since 2006, Singapore’s position as ASEAN’s top swimming nation is a forgone conclusion – a reputation they have protected for close to a decade.
As such, the true contest in Myanmar will be whether Singapore’s male swimmers can finally upstage their female team-mates, after having to play second fiddle for over 20 years.
As former national swimmer and current national coach Gary Tan said: “The push for more gold medals can sometimes create a friendly rivalry among the squad.
“But, at the end of the day, it’s all for the good of Singapore.”
Singapore’s women swimmers have led the Republic’s gold rush for 22 years, thanks largely to pool queens Joscelin Yeo and Tao Li.
Not since the late 1980s have their men pipped their fairer counterparts in the battle of the sexes.
Before that, the men, propelled by David Lim and Ang Peng Siong, had amassed 28 golds over three Games (1985, 1987, 1989).
But that may change in Myanmar as a golden generation of the Republic’s male swimmers is set to bloom.
Based on current form, the men could just edge out the women 10-8 in the gold-medal count, in the 18 events that Singapore are favourites in.
Spearheading the male charge are United States-based Joseph Schooling, Quah Zheng Wen and sprint sensation Darren Lim.
In the individual events, Joseph, 18, is eyeing a clean sweep of golds in the 100m, 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley.
A double-gold medallist at the last Games, his timings in all three events are faster than the winning times of the previous 2011 Games.
Joseph is aiming to be only the fourth Singapore male swimmer to win six golds at a SEA Games.
He will be aided by Zheng Wen, who is among the favourites in the 100m, 200m back, 400IM, 200m free and 200m fly.
The 17-year-old could well deliver Singapore’s first swimming gold, when he defends his 400m IM crown today.
Zheng Wen, though, is keeping cool amid talk of medals.
He said: “I wouldn’t really set a bar or medal targets.
“Honestly, I’d be contented with a few PBs (personal bests) in the individual events because personal improvement is what really matters to me.”
Both Joseph and Zheng Wen are also likely to lead Singapore as they defend their 4x100m and 4x200m relay crowns.
But, while the Republic should wrap up the 4x200m title, Indonesia will pose a serious threat in the 4x100m medley race.
Darren, 15, may be the youngest among the trio, but he is already Singapore’s fastest man and is set to also become the region’s best.
His personal best of 22.73sec puts him in pole position in Myanmar.
Should he better that mark, he may even break Ang’s 1982 national record of 22.69.
Besides Joseph, Zheng Wen, and Darren, the other men set to contribute to the gold tally are Danny Yeo, 23, and Teo Zhen Ren, 19. Both are hoping to defend their 200m and 1,500m free titles respectively.
To be sure, the women’s team are no slouches.
Amanda Lim, 20, is looking to secure her third consecutive victory in the 50m sprint.
Zheng Wen’s sister, Ting Wen, the 2009 star with five golds, has returned to the squad after missing out on the 2011 edition.
The 21-year-old will compete in the 50m, 100m, 200m free and the 100m and 200m fly – where she is expected to give compatriot Tao Li a good fight.
Tao, who won seven golds in Quah’s 2011 absence, will be competing in the 100m and 200m fly and 100m back.
She said: “I’m aiming for gold in all events. The 200m fly gold might be hard to retain, because I trained less for it. I am built for sprint.”
Quah was Singapore’s fastest qualifier for the 200m fly with 2:13.77. Tao, who was 2:16.33 at the trials, has a 2:12.63 personal best.
A wildcard in the women’s team is 16-year-old breaststroker Samantha Yeo. Coming into the Games, her season bests of 1:10.49 (100m breast) and 2:32.34 (200m breast) were faster than the 2011 winning marks.
But a dislocated right knee two months ago has put a question mark on her condition. Samantha, however, remains hopeful. She said: “What motivates me is that I don’t let down the team. Pre-injury, I was looking at two golds. I’m still going to work for them.”
Singapore won 17 golds at the previous Games, with the women contributing nine, but there were 38 on offer. There are only 32 events in Myanmar.
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