Butterfly's popularity down to track record

Joseph Schooling during the 100m butterfly heats at July's World Aquatics Championships. His 100m gold at the Rio Olympics established the fly as the stroke of choice for local swimmers.
Joseph Schooling during the 100m butterfly heats at July's World Aquatics Championships. His 100m gold at the Rio Olympics established the fly as the stroke of choice for local swimmers.PHOTO: SIMONE CASTROVILLARI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

For three decades, Singapore's best swimmers were freestyle specialists, featuring the likes of Ang Peng Siong, Patricia Chan and Junie Sng.

But the tide turned in favour of butterfly swimmers in the 1990s, beginning with 40-time SEA Games gold medallist Joscelin Yeo.

Then came two-time Asian Games 50m fly champion Tao Li and now Joseph Schooling, the nation's first Olympic champion, whose gold came in the 100m fly at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

When asked to explain why Singaporeans seem particularly well suited to the butterfly, national head coach Stephan Widmer pointed instead to how recent history can be a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

"The reason is probably cultural. Right now, if you're a child growing up in Brisbane (where Widmer comes from), you will be pretty much influenced to swim freestyle while in Singapore, you have your heroes in that (butterfly) stroke," said the Australian. "Our butterfly model is quite good and young kids will look up to Joseph Schooling and they will try to copy him."

Widmer compared the Republic to Japan, where the breaststroke reigns supreme because of the past successes of quadruple Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima.

The former coach of Australian Olympic champions Libby Trickett and Jessicah Schipper added that there are plans to diversify the variety of strokes among elite swimmers and it would be up to the national coaching team to close the gap for the other strokes on the international stage.

Said Widmer: "These things are certainly determined heavily by culture. But, if we don't have the best models in the other strokes now, then the coaches have to create them through shifts of understanding in the technical aspects, such as how a Singaporean does a breaststroke kick, or handles freestyle sprints."

Lester Wong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2018, with the headline 'Butterfly's popularity down to track record'. Print Edition | Subscribe