Swimming: System not yet ideal for world beaters

Sergio Lopez (left) guiding Quah Zheng Wen (front) and other swimmers on their strokes during training at OCBC Aquatic Centre yesterday. The Spaniard, a bronze medallist at the Seoul Olympics, is especially impressed with a squad of up-and-coming jun
Sergio Lopez (left) guiding Quah Zheng Wen (front) and other swimmers on their strokes during training at OCBC Aquatic Centre yesterday. The Spaniard, a bronze medallist at the Seoul Olympics, is especially impressed with a squad of up-and-coming juniors for both their talent and hunger. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Balancing studies and sports as well as NS among issues to be tackled, says swim coach

A year since taking charge and with a stellar report card that includes Singapore's first medal at the world championships among other positives, swimming national head coach Sergio Lopez has much to be proud of.

But while few would dispute that things are going well for the Spaniard, the reality is that for someone whose aim is to build an environment for sustainable success, the Singapore system is not ideal - at least not yet - for nurturing world beaters.

Giving a sobering review yesterday of his time at the helm so far, Lopez admitted that he has been handed several tough lessons in trying to work alongside idiosyncrasies of the Singapore culture.

Unsurprisingly, the perennial tussle between academic pursuits and sporting excellence, as well as the hot button issue of national service were some of the hurdles Lopez said he has had to contend with.

"At one point, parents will have to allow kids to understand that life can be successful when you do what you love," said the 47-year-old, who has experience coaching students from top institutions like Princeton University and Harvard.

SYSTEMIC CONSTRAINTS

I just need to accept and learn and understand how things work. It's a different culture, it's a different way.

SERGIO LOPEZ, swimming head coach.

PET EVENT

The main event for Zheng Wen is the 200m fly. The other ones I think he can be top 16. He can sneak in there if he has a good meet.

LOPEZ tips Quah Zheng Wen to make the semi-finals in one of three events.

 

"I'm not saying education is not important. The hurdle is how we combine both."

And while Singapore swimming has in Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen its brightest talent in years to contend at the Olympics, Lopez argued that the nation - and that includes everything from the authorities to even the way of life - has to decide how serious it wants to be on the international sporting stage.

He said: "We have many swimmers who by the time they're 16 or 17, stop swimming because they don't see a future any more because of national service.

"The country needs to figure out how to balance that."

Borrowing from his own experience, the 1988 Olympic bronze medallist said he, too, had to serve mandatory military service before conscription ended in Spain in 2001 - but only after he was allowed deferment until he was 28.

Israel, too, was brought up as an example of a country that offered athletes the option of delaying enlistment.

But do not be mistaken - Lopez was clear he is not here to make criticisms nor recommendations. Instead, he is merely learning to work alongside the system. He said: "I think they can find a system that can make it work. What's a compromise from the athlete, what's a compromise from military service?

"I'm nobody to say what needs to be done. It's something we need to work at. I just need to accept and learn and understand how things work. It's a different culture, it's a different way."

And even as the Barcelona-native admitted that uprooting his family to Singapore has been difficult, the job has been rewarding.

Said Lopez, who has a five-year contract with the Singapore Swimming Association until 2020: "I love it. I've grown as a person."

He noted that he enjoys working with a team that includes national assistant coach Gary Tan, and that on top of producing results, the swimmers have also been receptive and responsive to changes.

Quah, for one thing, recognises how Lopez's ways have elevated the belief within the team.

Said the 19-year-old: "We all want to be at the Olympics, in the finals, winning medals - that's the ultimate goal for every athlete. But a lot of Singapore swimmers don't actually see it as a feasible reality because it's just a dream that's so unobtainable and of such prestige.

"Sergio has been working on helping us believe we can be one of the best - if not the best - and that is the first step for us to take our swimming to the next level."

Meanwhile, a squad of up-and-coming juniors - among them starlets like Francis Fong, Dylan Koo, Hannah Quek and Quah Jing Wen - have impressed Lopez with both their talent and hunger.

Said Lopez: "You have a good group of kids who are very nifty and they really want it. They're not afraid.

"We're working on making swimming the best and I'm learning what I can and cannot do. I think we're on the right path. We're moving forward."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline 'SYSTEM NOT YET IDEAL FOR WORLD BEATERS'. Print Edition | Subscribe