SEA Games: Singapore's fledglings ready to take flight

(From left) Noah Lim (jiu-jitsu), Koen Pang (table tennis) and Hazim Yusli (pencak silat) are already looking for their second gold medal. PHOTOS: SNOC, LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE, SPORT SINGAPORE

HANOI - They are exuberant but inexperienced, rambunctious but raw. They are also seriously talented.

The 21st century Singaporean athlete will take centre stage at the May 12-23 SEA Games in Hanoi, and that is not just some snazzy tagline either.

A sizeable portion - just under half - of Team Singapore's 427 athletes who will compete in the Vietnamese capital were born in the year 2000 or later.

Not all of them are rookies.

A handful, like 19-year-olds Koen Pang (table tennis), Noah Lim (jiu-jitsu) and Hazim Yusli (pencak silat), 20, are already looking for their second gold medal at the regional biennial Games.

Most, however, are still saplings and will be among the 243 Singaporeans who will make their bow.

The selectors at the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) have traditionally considered the SEA Games an "entry-level competition", as secretary-general Chris Chan puts it.

A stepping stone for bigger challenges and higher-level competitions.

With this in mind, age and potential were factors taken into account, he said.

"Mind you, these are people who have qualified for it (on merit)," stressed Chan.

They have been selected to represent the nation to compete for medals and not just gain experience, he added.

The main criterion for being selected, after all, is an objective qualifying mark, pegged to the bronze medal performance at the previous edition of the Games.

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Some may have you believe that the 21st century Singaporean athlete is too mollycoddled, too pampered having been raised in comfortable surroundings, to excel in elite sport.

They would be mistaken.

Swimmer Ardi Azman, for example, has a built-in toughness that helped him persevere through illness to win the schools' National B Division boys' 1,500m freestyle final in 2021, even after he threw up a bit while racing.

Swimmer Ardi Azman in action. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

And footballers Zikos Chua, 20, and Ryaan Sanizal, 19, have overcome anterior cruciate ligament injuries - once considered a career-ender - to earn their right to play at the SEA Games and help the national Under-23 squad attempt to win a first medal since 2013.

The pandemic has also forced some of these athletes to grow up just a little bit quicker.

Fencer Elle Koh, 14, was not even aiming to get the nod to the SEA Games.

But she ended up winning bronze at the Singapore Senior Challenge - in a field with fencers more than double her age - in January 2020, and this suddenly placed her in contention to debut in Hanoi.

National epee fencer Elle Koh will be making her SEA Games debut in Hanoi. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Max Lee, two months younger than Elle and the youngest member of Team Singapore in Hanoi, was not old enough to get vaccinated in 2021, but good enough to compete at the Fina Diving World Cup in Tokyo last year.

Already, the pair of 14-year-olds are dreaming of one day competing at the Olympics.

These rising sports starlets are also mature enough to know they have to hustle and put in the hard yards, despite their budding talent.

Max Lee is the youngest member of the Singapore contingent making his debut in Aquatics (Diving). ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Zhou Jingyi, the 17-year-old who realised she was pretty good at this table tennis thing when she started beating boys her age at national zone training centres, is one example.

When Singapore hosted the World Table Tennis Grand Smash tournament in March, she was spotted quietly absorbing the action from the stands, all by herself. Why?

"For inspiration and technique," she answers.

Zhou Jingyi will be making her table tennis SEA Games debut in Hanoi. ST PHOTO: SAMUEL ANG

Few stories are more inspirational than Joseph Schooling's journey from precocious 16-year-old swimmer debuting at the Palembang SEA Games in 2011, to Olympic champion five years later.

Schooling will turn 27 next month and is an elder statesman to the new crop of young talent, and noted it is a new experience in Hanoi that awaits them.

He offered them this piece of advice: "However, it's still your first major Games and a moment you'll remember for the rest of your lives, Go out there and live for that moment."

For many of these 21st century Singaporean athletes, Hanoi will represent the first time they dive, dash or serve under a major spotlight.

And these fledglings are ready to take flight.

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