Lopez sees future in distance swimming for Singapore
National coach Lopez sees potential in long-distance events for Singapore swimmers
Singapore may be Asean's undisputed swimming powerhouses, and the Republic are making good headway on the world stage with Joseph Schooling's 100m butterfly bronze at this year's World Championships.
But national swimming coach Sergio Lopez has spotted a wide gap that he is keen to plug as the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) puts together its National 2020 strategic plan to aim for glory at the Tokyo Olympics five years from now.
The 47-year-old Spaniard said: "Historically, we don't really have kids who swim and think about will they go to the Olympics in the 800m or 1,500m. We don't even have a single open-water swimmer.
"By no means we are going to make these kids open-water swimmers, but it would be important and useful to introduce kids to open water, to go to some races and allow them to swim 2km, 3km and 5km and see how they feel.
"That's another field that we can be successful in the long term, so why not? It's important for us because it's an international, Olympic discipline and here, we have to think about high performance.
"The way the system is set up here for the younger kids... when they get accepted in certain schools, it's about sprinting 50m free, 50m fly, so we lose a lot of swimmers through that.
"I cannot change that. But if we can start somewhere, trying to empower kids to think about distance events, it's important if we can help somehow."
Lopez is right. Even at the Asean level, out of the 247 SEA Games medals Singapore swimmers have won this millennium, just five are from the 800m and 1,500m events.
Only two out of the 106 gold medals won have come from distance swimming - Lynette Lim won the 800m freestyle at Vientiane 2009, while Teo Zhen Ren was Singapore's last long-distance swim champ at the SEA Games when he won the 1,500m freestyle at Palembang 2011.
Both are no longer in the 28-man National Training Centre (NTC) squad, of which selection is based on the combination of two considerations - carded athletes/top 10 junior swimmers/distance swimmers by Fina points, and the decision by both NTC coaches as it pertains to the National 2020 goals.
Lopez said he has no problems coaching long-distance swimmers, and will rely on his personal experience and pointers from friends like Bruce Gemmell, coach of American Katie Ledecky, who owns the world record for the women's 400m, 800m, and 1,500m freestyle events.
While his new colleague Sonya Porter, SSA's newly-appointed high performance manager (swimming), is not here as a coach, she will be able to help create distance swimming programme given her experience in the discipline.
The 46-year-old Australian has coached at the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) Division 1 across various universities in the United States in her 21-year-long career.
In her current role, she will oversee the pathway development and implementation of an effective structure for athletes and coaches, focusing on the holistic advancement of swimming in Singapore.
Porter will also be tasked to raise the bar for Singapore Swimming through engaging with various stakeholders such as the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth, Sport SG, Singapore National Olympic Council, Singapore Sports Institute and other affiliates to bring greater support for the sport.
"My background is very scientific, Sergio's is a lot more on a psychological level," said Porter, who has a strong background in physiology. "We meet in the middle. You get to see the best of both worlds.
"Our focus is where we're going 2020 and beyond. It's an education, it comes on at various levels, not just the athletes but also at the coaching level.
"We want to go to the Asian Games and mix it up with Japan, that's something that this country can do.
"You've got some amazing coaches here in Singapore, you've got talented athletes being developed and there are great things that are already going on."
Porter, who began her two-year contract on Oct 1, also highlighted other areas which required attention, such as why some young swimmers deliver good performances only up until the 12-13 age bracket, and why many female swimmers don't stay in the sport despite not having National Service obligations.
Also on her mind is creating a successful programme for distance swimming, and changing people's mindsets about the discipline.
The SSA has made its first move by starting up a distance category which has now seven swimmers in the NTC squad.
Rachel Tseng, 17, is one of them, and she said: "In the old NTC squad, we had just three or four distance swimmers, but now we have double that number.
"In the previous NTC squad, we all trained together and it was hard to balance the mileage and different requirements for sprinters and distance swimmers.
"Now we can focus more on what we can achieve in distance swimming."