SINGAPORE - When paddler Koen Pang was promoted to the national team last January, he did not expect to feature in the SEA Games men's singles event.
But a stellar year, which culminated in him becoming the first Singapore-born paddler to claim the SEA Games men's singles title last month, has him harbouring bigger ambitions this season.
The 17-year-old now aims to qualify for this year's Tokyo Olympics. The table tennis competition is from July 25 to Aug 7.
He said: "This SEA Games gold is a stepping stone for me going into future events, especially now that I'm changing from juniors to seniors. It is a confidence boost because I know I have what it takes to play against the senior players."
His historic feat in the Philippines earned him The Straits Times Star of the Month award for December. The award is an extension of ST's Athlete of the Year prize, which was launched in 2008. Both are backed by F&N's 100Plus.
ST assistant sports editor Jonathan Wong said: "Singapore won 53 golds at last month's SEA Games and there were a number of standout performances from our national athletes. But, even against this competition, Koen's achievement stands out.
"He displayed great maturity to win the men's title and showed what an exciting talent he is for Singapore sport."
National men's team coach Gao Ning added: "I'm very happy that he's gotten his award. He has really proven himself through his hard work and is now being recognised for it."
It was initially hard for Koen to adjust to the intensity of training with the national team, but he gradually raised his level. Over time, training and competing overseas helped him improve as he learnt to adapt to different styles of play.
"Training and playing in competitions with different types of people gives you exposure to different playing styles," he said. "I learnt more ways to return the ball and how to give a high-quality ball back. For every match, it was important to know the player's playing style."
Last August, he became the first Singaporean to reach No. 1 in the world Under-18 rankings.
From there, he continued his stellar form as he clinched the world junior boys' doubles bronze with Josh Chua, the Republic's first medal at the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) World Junior Table Tennis Championships.
The world No. 177 now has his sights on breaking into the top 150 this year. To prepare for the Tokyo Olympics qualifiers, he has been training at least twice daily.
It may be challenging for Koen, who will be enlisting for National Service in the coming months, but he is determined to make the most of his time.
Singapore's first chance of earning a ticket to Japan will be at the I TTF World Team Qualification event from Jan 22-26. The quartet of Koen, Josh, Clarence Chew and Ethan Poh will have to finish in the top nine among 34 countries in Gondomar, Portugal.
The men's team failed to qualify for the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Gao was eliminated in the men's singles second round while compatriot Chen Feng bowed out in the opening round.
Koen knows that qualifying will not be easy, but is determined to give it a shot, saying: "We need to continue to try our best because there's a chance."