SEA Games 2017, Aug 19-30: 5 days to go

Water polo: End of 'the streak'? Not on their watch

Singapore men's water polo team has won the gold medal in the event since 1965. The team is determined to keep its winning streak at the upcoming games in Kuala Lumpur.
From left: Goalkeeper Lee Kai Yang, left-driver Koh Jian Ying and centre-forward Yu Junjie know there is an expectation for them to extend Singapore's winning streak at the SEA Games men's water polo competition.
From left: Goalkeeper Lee Kai Yang, left-driver Koh Jian Ying and centre-forward Yu Junjie know there is an expectation for them to extend Singapore's winning streak at the SEA Games men's water polo competition.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Men's water polo team are mindful of their winning streak but will not be burdened by it

Put the national men's water polo team and the SEA Games in the same conversation and one would be hard-pressed to avoid mentioning "the streak". It will be on the minds and shoulders of the team the moment they walk into Kuala Lumpur's National Aquatic Centre on Aug 16 for their first match of the 29th SEA Games.

"The streak" refers to Singapore's record of winning men's water polo gold at every Games since 1965 (then known as the Seap - South-east Asian Peninsular - Games). It can also include wins in all their round-robin matches at the biennial event.

A 52-year legacy, proudly built over 26 Games editions. No wonder goalkeeper Lee Kai Yang says: "Everyone in the team knows about the streak and wants to be a part of it."

The 22-year-old added: "The most important thing about the streak is that no single person or team can call ownership to that streak, so it's something that is bigger than any individual."

But ask the players whether they feel the pressure of maintaining this legacy, and the answers vary.

Left-driver Koh Jian Ying, the most experienced member of this year's squad, having featured in the past three editions, said: "I think (outsiders believe) we have more pressure than we actually do.

"The streak is always being talked about, just not necessarily by us."​

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  • WATER POLO

  • GOLD MEDALS ON OFFER: 2

  • TEAM SINGAPORE MEN

    Ang An Jun

    Sean Ang

    Chiam Kun Yang

    Koh Jian Ying

    Yu Junjie

    Darren Lee

    Lee Kai Yang

    Loh Zhi Zhi

    Yip Yang

    Chow Jing Lun

    Ooi Yee Jia

    Samuel Yu

    Bryan Ong

  • WOMEN

    Lynette Tan

    Shauna Sim

    Eunice Fu

    Gina Koh

    Sheryl Tan

    Wu Zhekang

    Melissa Ooi

    Koh Xiao Li

    Naomi Yap

    Cleona Zhu

    Loke En Yuan

    Ng Yi Wen

    Angeline Teo

The real pressure, explained the 25-year-old, is not just in maintaining the longevity of the streak, but also doing it convincingly.

There have been close shaves in the past - the 5-4 comeback win over Burma in the 1969 Seap Games; the narrow 9-8 and 12-11 wins over Indonesia in 1989 and 2011 respectively; and the 7-6 victory over the Philippines in 2005 .

"It's not only the pressure of winning, but also the pressure to perform," said Koh.

"We don't really think about (the streak) ourselves, because whether it's the SEA Games, Asian Games or a smaller competition, we just want to do our best and we always have targets, and our target is gold."

Perhaps the weight of the streak is lighter than most expect because it is shared by all 13 members of the team.

Centre-forward Yu Junjie, who is making his Games debut, admitted that thinking about the regional dominance does give him pressure at times, but advice from more experienced team-mates has helped.

"I don't want to let anybody down... I want to continue the streak for as long as I represent Singapore," said the 18-year-old Singapore Polytechnic student.

"I've always tried to make sure I'm focused on the right goal. Most of the time my seniors advise me not to stress myself out too much or overthink situations, and it helps."

Lee, recalling his SEA Games debut in 2015 on home soil, acknowledged that newcomers may "feel a weight on their shoulders to prove their worth".

But he added: "At the same time, the most important thing is for them to realise that they are a part of the team, which is made up of the newbies as well as seniors like us, who will definitely play a part in guiding them along the way."

The streak may not be explicitly addressed during team talks, but it is also no elephant in the room.

"It's not something that has hindered us or made us fearful of anything, so I don't think there is really a need to address it," said Lee.

"To the average Singaporean, that's the one thing that stands out the most. But for us players, the record doesn't make our job any easier or more difficult. We can think about it, but thinking about it more doesn't make training any easier or make our opponents any less competitive."

Koh agreed, adding: "When we go to the SEA Games, we just know that we're supposed to win every game."

 

There is no danger of letting thoughts of the streak affect their performance in the pool.

Said Lee: "When you're in the pool, there are a million and one things you really need to think about at that point in time. You really don't have the time to think, 'I'm making this pass so I can continue the legacy' or 'I'm going to score this goal so I can continue the legacy.'"

Yu, who was poolside in 2015 when the Republic clinched their 26th consecutive gold at the OCBC Aquatic Centre, will be hoping that what his seniors are saying is true.

Asked what he is most looking forward to at his first Games outing, he glanced at Lee and Koh, before responding: "I'm looking forward to stepping on the podium and getting the gold medal."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Not on their watch'. Print Edition | Subscribe