Swimming: Uncertainty over top athletes but head coach Gary Tan bullish about Asian Games

National swimming head coach Gary Tan (centre) with (from left) NTC assistant coach Gustavo Schirru, national athletic development co-ordinator Thng Shiqi, and NTC assistant coaches Lionel Khoo and Alex Mordvincev. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - A busy year awaits Singapore's swimmers with three major Games - the May 12-23 SEA Games, Commonwealth Games (July 28-Aug 8) and Asian Games (Sept 10-25) - and two World Championships lined up.

This hectic schedule is further complicated by uncertainty surrounding the status of six key swimmers - including Olympians Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen - who are currently undergoing national service.

Despite these challenges, newly appointed national head coach Gary Tan is hoping that his charges can win a medal at the Asiad.

While he stressed that no specific targets have been set, he said: "I hope to actually just try for some relay medals, as well as a couple of individual medals.

"If you've seen the current trend, there are some athletes whom we have earmarked to potentially win a medal at Asian Games."

At the 2018 edition in Jakarta, Singapore bagged two golds, a silver and three bronzes. Schooling won the men's 50m and 100m butterfly and was part of the relay teams that clinched bronzes in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle.

Roanne Ho, who has since retired, bagged a silver in the women's 50m breaststroke, with the women's 4x100m medley relay team bringing taking home bronze.

During this busy year, Tan and his team are aiming to use the SEA Games as a "rebuilding process" that could potentially see a young squad competing in Hanoi.

The 39-year-old said: "Potentially we still want our top guys to be going for the meets… we've definitely got to look at who makes the final cut and if there's a need for it, there will be a few young bloods who are going to go for SEA Games."

Supporting him is a new team at the National Training Centre (NTC) comprising assistant coaches Alex Mordvincev of Hungary, Brazilian Gustavo Schirru, former national swimmer Lionel Khoo, and national athletic development coordinator Thng Shiqi.

They took up their respective positions in August last year, shortly after a disappointing outing at the Tokyo Olympics that was followed by the controversial departure of former national head coach Stephan Widmer.

The new team were credited for the success at the 9th Singapore National Swimming Championships (Short Course Metres) three months later, which saw 20 national records broken and 14 swimmers qualify for the Fina World Swimming Championships (25m) in Abu Dhabi.

While the team were forced to withdraw from the Middle East meet after four squad members tested positive for Covid-19 there, Schirru, 31, was pleased with how they bounced back from the incident.

NTC assistant coach Gustavo Schirru showing swimmers how to improve their techniques. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The 31-year-old, who has worked with Brazil's top swimmers including three-time Olympic medallist and six-time world champion Cesar Cielo, Olympic bronze medallist Bruno Fratus and world record holder (50m butterfly short course) Nicholas Santos, said: "The end of last year was kind of frustrating - not because of us, but because of what happened in Abu Dhabi.

"It was really possible to have someone in the finals or semi-finals. For me, it just proves that they're wanting great results and this is what I'm seeing from the athletes who've come back from the situation.

"After all that happened last year, it's the same vibe, they're wanting more."

Mordvincev, who has coached at swim academies and international schools in Singapore for the past decade, most recently as head coach of Tanglin Trust School, agreed that the squad are capable of more.

He said: "This year, the plan is to use that capacity (of the athletes) and build it to an even higher level, mixing with more quality and specific training that we'll use to get the maximum number of athletes qualifying for all the major Games.

"And using those pipeline swimmers - this is their time to show their potential - building that group of athletes and giving them the opportunity to race at a higher level."

NTC assistant coach Alex Mordvincev giving instructions to swimmers. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Pointing to the NTC's role as a platform for coaches and swimmers to share their knowledge and exchange ideas, Mordvincev added that the long-term goal is to develop the landscape to one day produce multiple world or Olympic title holders.

Khoo, a four-time SEA Games gold medallist, will not only be involved with coaching but has also been tasked with duties that a technical director may typically oversee.

The 26-year-old, who competed at the 2019 SEA Games, believes that his relationship with his former teammates will help to bridge "any potential gap" between the coaches.

NTC assistant coach Lionel Khoo sharing a light moment with swimmers. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

While his priority in the pool is to work on technical details such as starts and turns, he will also help the swimmers manage their commitments in sport, studies and more.

Khoo, who graduated from the University of South Carolina last year, noted how the environment in the United States was more conducive for athletic development as it enabled student-athletes to pay equal attention to books and sport.

He said: "I wanted to continue working on building this support system for the swimmers. It's been very successful and SSA (Singapore Swimming Association) was always there for me whenever I needed them, so it's also a way for me to give back to the swimming community."

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