Swimming: S'pore athletes happy to be racing at National Olympic Qualifiers after 11-month wait

Competitors had to wear a mask at all times except when in the water, and move quickly to their zones.

National swimmer Quah Ting Wen (centre) along with other swimmers waiting to compete at the National Olympic Qualifiers, on Dec 3, 2020. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANDY CHUA/SSA
National swimmers Luke Tan (left) and Ritchie Oh wearing masks as part of safety measures in place at the National Olympic Qualifiers. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANDY CHUA/SSA

SINGAPORE - There were happy grins behind their face masks as swimmers strode onto the deck at the OCBC Aquatic Centre on Thursday (Dec 3) to race in the Singapore National Olympic Qualifiers (SNOQ), the first competitive meet here in almost a year.

With Covid-19 wreaking havoc on the sports calendar, many of them had not competed since the Singapore Swim Series I in January. But their first day back on the blocks was far from normal with strict safety measures to be adhered to.

Save for a group of socially-distanced coaches, the aquatic centre was mostly empty and quiet in the absence of cheering friends and family as the meet was held behind closed doors. All participants were required to wear a mask at all times except when in the water.

The number of competitors was also cut by more than half to about 300 swimmers and technical officials were reduced from 30 to 14.

For 800m freestyle swimmer Gan Ching Hwee, what stood out at the meet was having to move quickly from one area to the next.

"This new competition format really tests our adaptability skills because there's a lot of changes," said the 17-year-old, who won two golds and a silver at last year's SEA Games.

"Our warm-up timing is a bit tight in the sense that we don't have much time to sit around and rest. So once we change up we have to keep moving to the next zone that we are allocated to."

While the experience took some getting used to, Donovan Lee was just happy to be back racing.

"It's a bit different, but as long as you follow the set orders, it isn't that bad. I didn't feel like I was very constrained," said the 20-year-old, who competed in the men's 100m backstroke.

"It's refreshing after a few months off and it's a step forward to next season."

Organised by the Singapore Swimming Association, the SNOQ will give swimmers the opportunity to race and meet the Olympic qualifying times for the July 23-Aug 8 TokyoGames.

The usual meets such as the Singapore National Swimming Age Group (SNAG) and Singapore National Swimming Championships as well as other international races were scrapped this year because of the pandemic, leaving few opportunities for athletes to compete in.

While Thursday's meet did not see any Olympic qualifying marks or national records, a number of the swimmers are using the event as a tune-up ahead of the next Olympic qualifier, the SNAG in March next year.

Quah Ting Wen, who is hoping to qualify for her third Olympic Games, was pleased with her performance in the women's 100m freestyle, where she finished second in 56.42sec.

Prior to the meet, she had only four days of training in the pool as she was serving a two-week quarantine after returning from the International Swimming League in Hungary, where she had set two short-course national records.

The 28-year-old is confident that she can meet the Olympic A time next year, saying: "When March comes around and everyone's tapered and well rested, we can move fast.

"I swam well in Hungary, got a lot of the small details that I've been working on, so I'm excited to see if I can translate that from short-course racing to long course."

Quah will be back in action at the SNOQ on Friday in the 100m butterfly. Among the swimmers aiming to earn their ticket to Tokyo are sprint specialist Teong Tzen Wei, who will be competing in the 100m fly, Glen Lim (400m freestyle) and Christie Chue (100m breaststroke).

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