A hit at Games but hard to make waves in schools

Back in 2010, Stephanie Chen caught the eye when she won the Secondary B Division solo event at the inaugural Schools National Synchronised Swimming Championships.

At last month's SEA Games, the 19-year-old turned more heads when she led Singapore to a historic haul of two golds and a silver.

It might seem everything is going swimmingly well in the sport. But the reality is that it has struggled to gain traction in schools.

Reasons range from a lack of swimming pools in schools to the need for costumes and sound systems. There are also fewer than 10 coaches here.

"Most of us in the national team didn't start the sport from the school level," Chen said.

"Most of the seniors started off at SpeediSwim Aquatic Centre (a club) with me, and it was mainly out of our own passion and interest in the sport."

Only a few schools, such as Methodist Girls' School (MGS), offer the sport as a co-curricular activity. "There is little support to turn it into a recognised CCA. Many just don't see the need to," noted former national captain Mei Shan Krishnan.

The Ministry of Education said that while schools strive to meet the diverse needs of their students, "it is not possible to cater to every demand for a specific CCA". Just three clubs train most of the aspiring young performers who number in the low hundreds.

"The choice is not too good for the national team. I'm hoping it's easier to promote the sport now," said national head coach Maryna Tsimashenka.

The sport, to be sure, has made inroads, especially after Singapore won three silvers and a bronze in the 2011 SEA Games in Indonesia.

At Aquatic Performance Swim Club, team manager Linda Tan said enrolment grew from about 20 students in 2011 to about 45 now.

SpeediSwim coach Tanya Meshkova saw a jump from about 10 to 40 in the same period.

Yet, former national synchronised swimmer Melissa Khor, 22, noted: "Only a few clubs can teach the sport. It's not too accessible for everyone because they might need to travel far."

Studies also get in the way of training.

"Our national team trained for 44 hours a week (for the Games). For most students, it is only four," Tsimashenka said. "Parents are very worried about studies."

Lee Kok Choy, president of the Singapore Swimming Association, which organised the schools synchronised swimming meet, believes a two-pronged approach - via schools and clubs - can best improve the sport's long-term prospects.

"If more clubs can support the sport, then more young ones will take part through them themselves," he said. "We have a strong programme at the three clubs so schools can work with them to develop the swimmers too."

MGS vice-principal Vincent Ong also believes that continuation is key at the tertiary level.

Meanwhile, the success at the SEA Games - with the OCBC Aquatic Centre drawing sell-out crowds - can only brighten prospects for the sport.

As Tan noted: "The 2011 Games were when we saw that breakthrough which can spur an interest."

Now that Singapore has made a breakthrough to be Asean's top synchronised swimming nation, a second wave of interest could land here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2015, with the headline 'A hit at Games but hard to make waves in schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe