HANOI - After 2½ years without international competitions, Singapore's swimmers will finally get the chance to benchmark themselves against overseas rivals when the SEA Games swimming competition kicks off on Saturday (May 14).
For most of them, their last international meet was the 2019 Philippine Games, where the Republic matched its best-ever haul from the pool with 23 gold medals, but national head coach Gary Tan believes that this year’s Hanoi Games will be tougher than previous editions, given the challenges of the past two years.
Opportunities to race have been limited owing to the pandemic. Last December, the swimmers had been slated to take part in the Fina World Swimming Championships (25m) in Abu Dhabi, but a bout of Covid-19 cases within the squad left them unable to compete.
“Of course, we want to do well, but we’ve been crossed with a lot of hurdles. The team has not raced in over two years internationally,” said Tan, who also noted how the circumstances have been different for various other countries.
“As much as we want to match 2019, we know the realism of it. I’m quietly optimistic, but I don’t want to show my cards too fast...
“The motto we’re going to try to work towards is to have fun racing – being able to race is a privilege.”
Tan is expecting stiff competition from Thailand in the women’s events and Malaysia and Vietnam for the men, while also noting Indonesia could also pose a challenge. But he remained confident his charges would be able to fight for medals in all the events they are competing in.
He said: “We come here to race, we are on a mission – we’re here to compete and hopefully, they better their personal bests, get a good time and we’ll get something from there. A gold medal would be a good bonus in every race but whatever event that we’re in, we’re contending for a medal, at least.”
Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen, who are both serving national service and have 48 SEA Games titles between them, are also in Hanoi.
Tan said of the two Olympians: “We are thankful that they are able to be here with us as they add value to the team. I don’t feel like I can put an expectation on them, but I do also want them to succeed knowing they have gone through their own service while trying to train, which hasn’t been easy.”
However, he was more optimistic when casting his eye on some of the team’s up-and-coming swimmers. At the 2019 edition, Darren Chua, Jonathan Tan, Gan Ching Hwee, Christie Chue and Elena Pedersen snagged six individual and five relay golds between them, accounting for almost half of the 23-title haul.
Among those Tan believes can deliver this year are Maximillian Ang, 21, Jonathan Tan, 20, as well as 19-year-old debutants Ardi Azman and Letitia Sim.
Sim, who was born in Singapore but raised in the United States, finished third in the US’ Big Ten Conference Championships women’s 100-yard breaststroke in February, while also holding the three fastest times for the women’s 100m breaststroke in Singapore.
Her national record of 1min 7.86sec even tops the 2019 SEA Games-winning time and meet record of 1:08.50 set by Malaysia’s three-time champion Phee Jinq En, and would have placed her fifth at both the Commonwealth and Asian Games in 2018.
Tan said: “We need to find young blood coming through and we need to enable them to perform on a bigger stage because we know that our swimmers are coming of age as well. I think we’ll see some pretty decent results from quite a few of them.”
Singapore's gold medal tally at the last 3 SEA Games