SINGAPORE - In a move that stunned the Republic's swimming community, Sergio Lopez, head coach of the Singapore swim team, announced on Friday that he will step down after the August Rio Olympics - less than halfway into his five-year contract with the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA).
Lopez, a former Olympic bronze medallist with Spain, inked a five-year deal with the Singapore Swimming Association in November 2014. He started work the following January. His assistant, former national swimmer Gary Tan, will take over as acting head coach upon Lopez's departure.
It is believed that Lopez, whose wife and two children are living here with him, will join the Auburn University swimming and diving team. The Auburn Tigers compete in Division 1 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Explaining his decision, Lopez said: "When I took up this job, it was because it was more than a job; it was a role in which I felt I could make a real difference in. I've had a wonderful journey over the past 15 months, and garnered much success with the wonderful talents in Singapore.
"However, I have received a good opportunity to move back to the United States with my family and made the tough decision to leave my role here and return home."
He also reiterated his commitment as national head coach in the remaining months. He said: "I will continue with my role till the end of Rio Olympics and I am very focused on preparing our Singapore team for Rio. I remain committed to achieving the best for our swimmers and for Singapore, the country I've called home the last 15 months.
"I will ensure that my impending departure will not distract the swimmers in anyway."
Lopez's departure will nonetheless leave a big void in the high performance department. Under his guidance, the national swimmers won an all-time high of 23 golds at last year's Singapore SEA Games. It eclipsed the record of 21 golds, achieved on home soil at the 1973 South-east Asian Peninsular Games.
Lopez was also known for coaching Singapore swim star Joseph Schooling for five years at the Bolles School in Florida. Schooling, 20, has blossomed into a bona fide star since, winning a bronze medal at the Fina swimming world championships last year. The butterfly specialist is now a medal prospect for the 100m fly event in Rio.
Schooling's team-mate Quah Zheng Wen has also blossomed under Lopez. The 19-year-old met the Olympic "A" mark for three events - 100m backstroke as well as 100m and 200m fly.
The SSA has thanked Lopez for his contributions. Said its secretary general Oon Jin Teik: "Sergio has played an integral role in the development pathway of our high performance swimmers. His dedication to our swimmers is evident in the recent outstanding performances at the SEA Games and international competitions.
"He has invested in our swimmers and more importantly inculcated in them the belief that they can go further, faster. We wish him the very best. Our next immediate step is to search for world-class expertise that will take us to the next level in our vision."