Swimming: Inheriting the golden DNA

The third of a four-part Sunday Times SEA Games series tracing the journey of four sports through the athletes' eyes Next week: Football

Sporting history, so you may think, should not just be preserved but paraded in the athlete's home. Shining trophies in glass cases. Certificates framed like law degrees. Medals draped on a wall like golden paintings.

Except that the four athletes gathered in a room at the OCBC Aquatic Centre, who own 100 SEA Games golds between them, do not flaunt their treasure.

Joscelin Yeo swears, err, umm, that her mother used to keep her 40 golds. Quah Zheng Wen, 18, says his mum doesn't like clutter, so his single one is in a vase in the attic. Ang Peng Siong insists his 20 are in his old house somewhere. Patricia Chan says her 39 are safely stored in a special box.

Maybe what they're trying to tell us is that it's not the medals that matter, it's the winning of them that they cherish. Medals may lose their polish but never the memories of what these athletes did and where they came from.

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Chan, 61, can still remember being nine, climbing onto the bonnet of a car at 5am, then across a seven-foot fence - with the aid of her coaching father - and into the unlighted pool at the Chinese Swimming Club "steaming with chlorine". Think of it as a beautiful desperation.

Ang, 54, dived into more glittering waters, as a boy "mucking around" in pools where he found coins and gold chains stuck in old filtration systems. That gold had to be returned; but gold that he later earned he would keep.

Chan swam in a no-Speedo era; Yeo swam in a no-YouTube time where she had to record the Olympics at home on video. Time separates these swimmers but excellence unites them.

When a measured Yeo, 36, speaks of swimming she sounds like a mermaid: "I loved being in the water. I found swimming challenging because it doesn't come as naturally as walking or running. The challenge of mastering a stroke intrigued me."

Quah is a child of the present, as lean as a Malacca cane, his motivation as pure as the water that must run in his veins. He's had the benefit of covered pools and sports science, yet it's not perks that drive him but perseverance. "Even without all this," he says with grave intensity, "I would still be in the sport."

Swimming - a bit like gymnastics - allows for multiple medals to be won in a single Games. In weightlifting you can win only one at each Games. So, too, in hockey. Yet it is still astonishing that swimming has won roughly 37 per cent of Singapore's total golds and has only once not won a gold at a Games. These people, and their sport, have set the standard.

In this room, cramped with talent, the swimmers dissect their waterworld into brilliant parts. Even now you can feel Chan's ambition as she describes her attitude on the blocks: "Take no prisoners. Silver and bronze medals never interested me." She only won gold.

Yeo talks eloquently of her preparation, describing a visualisation - where she is able to see where she is in a race - so vividly it is almost eerie. Think of it this way. Think of her imagining her race and holding a stopwatch. Think of her swimming the perfect race in her mind and stopping the stopwatch as she touches the wall. The time she sees in her mind is exactly the time on the stopwatch.

All of them swam at a SEA Games at home, all of them are stuffed with memories. Ang, a man of gravitas, can still see "crowds standing on the rooftop of Toa Payoh (stadium). You could feel the intensity, it was electrifying. You know all these people are watching and wanting to hear Majulah Singapura." This is the power of athletes, to have a national anthem played just because of you.

Quah, 18, listens to stories of history even as he readies to make his own. Singapore swimmers have owned the SEA Games, had scattered success at the Asian Games and still dream of Olympic glory. We have more pools yet need a wider pool. We have science yet, says Quah, perhaps we need a hardier spirit.

What he found in a trip to America was foreign swimmers "who could just step up and race under any conditions. Here we're very comfortable in our element. They can race up to three times in three weeks and swimmers here, me included, are not as accustomed to this multiple shaves-and-race culture".

Quah, who has 12 events at these SEA Games, knows what he has to do in the water and he knows what he doesn't like about his life in the water. It's those 4.50am wake-up calls long before daylight even shows up. Yeo and Chan, both of whom rose at 4.30am, laugh in agreement, grateful that they at least are no longer prisoners of their alarm clocks.

Ang's pet peeve wasn't a clock but the cold, especially the chilly waters he dived into to train in Mexico City in the early 1980s. But perhaps he should be grateful the water was clean. After all, at the 1969 Seap Games in Rangoon, Burma, Chan can remember pieces of algae floating in the water, the sort of seaweed sandwich swimmers would rather avoid as they surface for air.

Ah well, on the way to greatness all sorts of challenges must be devoured.


Sports Editor Marc Lim on why we cannot truly appreciate the present without acknowledging the deeds of the past here.

Trace the rise and fall of Singapore swimming through the decades here.

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  • SEAP/SEA Games

1965-1973: 39 golds

  • Asian Games

1966: 100m back, 200m IM,

4x100m free bronzes

1970: 400m free, 4x100m free 4x100m medley silvers; 100m free, 200m free bronzes

  • Sportswoman of the Year

1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972

Forty-plus years later you can still hear the disappointment echoing in Pat Chan's voice. By 1972, she had won the Sportswoman of the Year award five times consecutively. Which is when, she says, a new rule was instituted: No athlete could win the award more than five times.

To her, it didn't make sense: it was like telling a champion there is a ceiling on winning, a limit to achievement. Disappointed, she decided to stop swimming in 1972: "It stripped the joy out of breaking barriers, it negated the whole point of setting new goals and standards. I'd had enough, so I walked away."

Except Singapore was hosting the SEA Games the following year and Chan says she received a phone call from a senior person asking that she return to the pool.

In what was the "hardest year" of her swimming life, both mentally and emotionally, she competed again.

One last SEA Games.

Six more medals.

All gold, but of course.

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  • SEA Games

1977-1993: 20 golds

  • Asian Games

1982: 100m free gold,

100m fly bronze

1986: 100m free bronze,

4x100m free bronze

1990: 50m free silver, 4x100m free bronze

  • Sportsman of the Year

1983, 1984 and 1985

Strong, sober, swift, Ang Peng Siong wears pride more comfortably than he does regret. In 1982, he did what no swimming Singaporean has done: He set the fastest time on the planet. Unequalled on the earth that year in the 50m freestyle. Two years later was the Los Angeles Olympics, a medal was possible, except the event was not included.

But Ang just shrugs, his memories are happier ones. Of the 1983 home Games and the 100m freestyle.

He was in Lane 4, compatriot Tay Khoon Hean in Lane 3, and Indonesian Lukman Niode in Lane 5. The Singaporeans stitched together a strategy: If Ang - who was always going to win - swam at the right speed, and did not get too far ahead, he could block Lukman's view of where Tay was on the way back to the finish.

Ang did exactly that, Tay won silver, and this is what the great man remembers most: Teamwork.

And just by the way: that 22.69 sec he swam on Aug 20, 1982 in the 50m free. It's still the national record. Thirty-three years later.

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  • SEA Games

1991-2005: 40 golds

  • Asian Games

1994: 100m fly bronze

2002: 100m fly bronze

  • Sportswoman of the Year

1994, 1996 and 2000

Joscelin Yeo's memory is full of gold. So many years and Games and races and 40 victories. And yet she also has style and grace. For when asked to pick a memory, a moment, from a Games at home, she reaches for Ang Peng Siong's 50m freestyle.

"I think it ended up being his final race. He was our team captain, we all knew what was at stake and what he was trying to do. And we were all up there behind him, everybody in the stands was up there behind him, just kind of willing him on.

"Sometimes I think about it and I can still see the race and it gives me goose bumps. That's the kind of effect you have swimming on home ground. Everybody there cheering you and willing you on."


"There's always pressure. Athletes have to deal with pressure. But I see the crowd as an advantage."

Evidently she did. Ang Peng Siong won his gold in 50m that year. Yeo simply won nine.

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  • SEA Games

2011: 1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze

2013: 2 golds, 3 silvers, 1 bronze

  • Sportsboy of the Year


Eventually, finally, Quah Zheng Wen doesn't want to just "go to an Olympics and be a participant". He doesn't want to be there just "for the experience". He doesn't want to be "somebody standing by the pool".

He wants to be somebody.

At 18, he is learning. About himself and the competition. About how American swimmers - as he discovered on a trip there - travel across their country, compete in different weather, in uncovered pools, in varying environments.

And they are always ready to race: "No matter what, they try their best."

It is a sort of mental conditioning Singapore swimmers have to find. For as Quah says: "Here I have seen first-hand with some of our swimmers that when they're faced with a little bit of difficulty they just kind of back down. They see someone faster and can't really comprehend it. But you just have to get over that mental barrier to beat someone who is faster."

In a way, when he says these words, he's also reminding himself of what he has to do.

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