Water polo: Former national players return to help teams with push for SEA Games gold

After retiring from the national water polo team in 2017, Yip Yang (centre) decided to make a U-turn and is back in the squad. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE – Four years have passed, but national water polo player Yip Yang still remembers the sense of helplessness that he felt as he watched Singapore’s 52-year reign as SEA Games champions come to an end in 2019.

At the New Clark City Aquatic Centre in the Philippines, the Republic were handed their first-ever defeat at the biennial Games by eventual champions Indonesia, before settling for bronze.

Yip had retired from the national team after the 2017 SEA Games, but he watched the live stream of every game in the 2019 edition.

The 31-year-old, who works in sales, said: “There was a sense of helplessness because we were rooting for the team, but there was nothing much we could do in our capacity at that point.

“Even then it was too late for repairs, so the only thing that I could’ve done on my part was to train and play on, I could maybe make a difference no matter how small or big it is.”

He is one of two former players who have returned to the national men’s team as they aim to reclaim the gold medal at the May 5-17 SEA Games in Cambodia.

Yip, who had retired in 2017 to focus on his career, feels that things have stabilised on that front, allowing him to go for his fourth SEA Games. He said: “The majority of the team is hungry to win back the SEA Games gold. This particular one will be special to all of us.

“Part of my regrets was that I wasn’t around in 2019 and we all think of what could’ve been and if things could have been different if we had been playing, but there’s no point mulling over the past.”

Also back in the team is former captain Loh Zhi Zhi. The 33-year-old, who got married in 2017, had withdrawn from national team duties after the 2018 Asian Games to spend more time with his family.

But just a year later, Loh began contemplating a return. He had missed the camaraderie after watching the team compete at the Fina Water Polo Challengers’ Cup on home ground in October 2019.

It was not an easy decision for him to make, especially with his wife expecting their first child but she gave her full support, and he rejoined the team later that year.

National water polo player Loh Zhi Zhi in action against the Chinese national team during the Asian Water Polo Championships held at the OCBC Aquatic Centre on March 22, 2023. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Loh and Yip are both part of the team competing at the Asian Water Polo Championships, which started at the OCBC Aquatic Centre on Wednesday. The men’s team opened their campaign with a 23-1 defeat by five-time Asian Games champions China, while the women’s team lost 12-7 to two-time Asiad silver medallists Kazakhstan.

The duo still coached the youth team and occasionally participated in national training sessions as sparring partners, but Loh said it took him about two to three months to fully regain his fitness.

It was the same for women’s national player Gina Koh, who left the team after the 2019 SEA Games owing to injuries. While she also attended some national team training sessions as a sparring partner, she noted that the intensity was different.

A key factor that encouraged the public servant, 31, to return to the fold in early 2023 was her belief that the squad have the potential to go for gold in Cambodia. In the three editions that Koh has taken part in, Singapore have won silver.

She said: “I’ve never got a gold medal, which is my dream, so why not just give it a last go and see if we can achieve the gold this time.”

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