Singapore swimming relay team on track for Tokyo 2020
NTC head coach Tan confident of Olympic breakthrough, also eyes team gold at Asian Games
First, a "small splash" at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, then the world's biggest stage at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
Singapore have not fielded a relay quartet at the Olympics since 1996, but National Training Centre (NTC) head coach Gary Tan is confident that the Republic will feature in the team events in Japan.
"Our focus for 2020 is the relays and we have reiterated that to our swimmers," the 34-year-old former national swimmer told The New Paper last week.
"The best swimming nations in the world are represented in the relay events and being able to send four strong swimmers to compete in the Olympics in a relay sends a strong message about the depth (of talent) in your country."
The men's 4x100m medley quartet came close to qualifying at the Rio Olympics in August.
They recorded a time of 3min 38.25sec, behind Greece (3:34.41), the slowest qualifiers for Rio.
Singapore sent their smallest swim team to the Olympics this year, comprising just Olympic champion Joseph Schooling and siblings Quah Ting Wen and Zheng Wen.
Tan believes that the men's relay teams, especially the 4x100m medley and the men's 4x100m free events, are strong bets for Tokyo if they are anchored by Schooling and two-time Olympian Zheng Wen.
"In the freestyle, we have a few trump cards in our pockets; not many people realise that we have a few young swimmers in the 49- or 50-second range for the 100m freestyle," Tan mused, without revealing the names.
Coupled with Quah, 20, and Schooling, 21, whom Tan believes can go below 48 seconds for the 100m free, he said that Singapore have a shot of making the Games in that event.
"These (young) swimmers are capable of clocking 48 seconds... If we can develop these guys in the long run, they can surprise people and themselves," said Tan.
He also aims for the relay teams to make a "small splash" at the Asian Games in 2018, a major milestone on the road to Tokyo 2020.
In the freestyle, we have a few trump cards in our pockets; not many people realise that we have a few young swimmers in the 49- or 50-second range for the 100m freestyle.NTC head coach Gary Tan
The Republic clinched a bronze in the men's 4x200m free relay at Incheon 2014, after South Korea were stripped of their third-placed finish due to Park Tae Hwan's doping scandal.
Then, Singapore's quartet of Danny Yeo, Pang Sheng Jun, Teo Zhen Ren and Clement Lim clocked 7:25.46, while the Koreans finished the race in 7:21.37.
Schooling did not swim in that relay and Quah did not compete in the Asiad at all.
Tan said: "Our goal (for 2018) is not just beating South Korea, but also Japan and China.
"We want to eclipse them and I want to do it in a way that they'd never expect us to, at the Asian Games."
SEA Games the platform for junior swimmers to step up
At the very least, National Training Centre (NTC) head coach Gary Tan wants Singapore to top the medal table in swimming at the South-east Asia (SEA) Games next year in Kuala Lumpur.
But, whether the team can come close, or even surpass, the 23 golds they clinched last year on home ground depends on several factors, such as competition focus and injuries.
"Everyone expects us to do very well at the SEA Games, but let's take a step back," the 34-year-old former national swimmer told The New Paper last week.
Olympic champion Joseph Schooling, who won nine SEA Games golds last year, may scale down his events for the next biennial Games (Aug 19 to 31), to prepare himself for the Fina World Championships from July 14 to 30.
Quah Zheng Wen, 20, who won seven golds, four silvers and a bronze at last year's SEA Games, may also do the same for the same reason.
Quah's elder sister Ting Wen, who won four golds and four silvers, is still recuperating from an arm surgery, while women's 50m breaststroke champion Roanne Ho is on the comeback trail after a 2016 season beset with health and injury scares.
Tao Li, who won five golds, has put competitive swimming on the backburner for now and may also take on fewer events in Malaysia next year.
Younger swimmers such as Nur Marina Chan, Francis Fong, Hoong En Qi and Quah Jing Wen have mostly been in the background, as the senior swimmers continue to dominate the scene in recent years.
TIME TO STEP UP
However, Tan believes that the 2017 Games would be a perfect opportunity for the next wave of swimmers to step up.
He said: "Statistically, only six swimmers won 17 individual gold medals at the last SEA Games. What we want is a bigger spread of swimmers who can get onto the podium.
"What I am seeing is a renewal: You'd want to see the younger ones come up and the SEA Games should be the platform."
While some in the local swimming fraternity may have doubts over his ability to helm the national programme because of his age, Tan believes he is the right man for the job.
He said: "Sonya (Porter, high performance manager) has been helping me, she is a very direct person and doesn't sugarcoat things when they don't work."
Tan also revealed that there are opportunities for him to learn from various areas of sports science and dryland training next year.
Former national coach Sergio Lopez has brought about a new mindset and injected a can-do spirit in the swimmers and this has also challenged Tan to do better.
"It's an even harder job, with their higher self belief; they also have higher expectations of themselves and you," Tan said.
"You have to keep them on their toes and I told them they have to test me as well.
"And I remember someone telling me before that you should never ever say that you have learnt enough.
"In swimming, there are always opportunities to learn and get better and I live by that mantra."