Artistic swimming: Olympic hopefuls aim to qualify despite challenges, targeting personal best

Miya Yong (left) and Debbie Soh perform a routine during a closed-door performance at Toa Payoh Swimming Complex.
Miya Yong (left) and Debbie Soh perform a routine during a closed-door performance at Toa Payoh Swimming Complex.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SWIMMING ASSOCIATION

SINGAPORE - It has been 22 months since artistic swimming duet Debbie Soh and Miya Yong tasted competition but the lengthy hiatus has not dampened their ambitions.

The Singaporean pair are aiming to hit a personal best at their first physical competition since the Covid-19 pandemic - the June 10-13 Fina Olympic Games artistic swimming qualification tournament in Barcelona.

The 2017 SEA Games gold medallists have set their sights on bettering their personal bests, a score of 78.7333 achieved in the duet free finals at the Fina Artistic Swimming World Series Canada Open 2019 and a score of 78.2622 in the duet technical finals at the Fina Artistic Swimming World Series US Open 2019.

“We have two routines - one technical and one free, and the score we are aiming to hit is around 81 or 82 for each routine,” said Yong.

However, if they are to become the first Singaporean artistic swimmers to qualify for the Olympics, they will need to beat some of the world's best to attain one of the seven slots up for grabs in Spain. This is their last chance to make duet field in Tokyo, which will have a total of 22 pairs.

Still, while only seven spots remain, Soh and Yong do not necessarily have to finish in the top seven in Barcelona to qualify.

Steve Chew, Singapore Swimming Association vice-president for artistic swimming, explained: "At the end of the tournament, the teams will be ranked. And because there are an additional three duet spots already reserved for countries that qualify in the team event, this means that the three best duet pairs who finish outside the top seven rankings could still stand a chance to qualify."

The road to Tokyo certainly has not been easy for the duo, as Covid-19 restrictions have dealt multiple blows to their preparations. And the mental toll of having to deal with the changes in competition scheduling was something Soh and Yong had to learn to cope with.

Soh, 23, said: "For the physical aspect, we are already quite used to it, having gone through the on and off seasons every year. But it is the mental part which is more difficult to deal with because we've already had two postponements, one cancellation and now we have to compete again.

"Last year, we were supposed to compete in the French Open but we were not allowed to fly because of safety reasons and the quarantine would have disrupted our training plans."

The last competition that the pair had participated in was the 2019 World Championships held in Gwangju. In the meantime, they have continued to participate in virtual competitions and "full dress rehearsals", so as not to get rusty.

The lack of a crowd in Barcelona this time will also pose a challenge for them.

Yong, 21, said: "We haven't had a large audience watch us perform in a long time and usually that is what gives us the most adrenaline and encouragement to perform well... and for the competition there also won't be any audience so I guess that is something we have to get used to and we still have to push ourselves."

This will also be the first physical competition with new head coach Anastasia Goutseva at the helm.

Goutseva, who joined the SSA last year, said: "There were a lot of adaptations to our plans, but we took this with a positive view because it gives us time to fix things and get better. I hope they will gain a lot after all this preparation, not only as an athlete but also as a human and become stronger.

"I hope they will be able to bring their best performance on the day of our competition... We are positive and excited. We want to show how much we have improved."

Chew added that the lack of recent competition makes it difficult to gauge where Soh and Yong stand, but he remains optimistic about their chances.

"Leading up to the 2019 World Championships, they did perform quite well. In fact, if we base it on the rankings in the World Championships, we do have a chance (to qualify for the Olympics). And they have improved in the past two years, but I'm sure others have also improved, so we can only know on the day of the competition."