Polo boys want Asian breakthrough
New coach Milakovic tasked with bringing team to top four next year, while SSA aims for top two in 2022
It has been 27 years since the Singapore men's water polo team finished in the top four at the Asian level, and 31 years since they won a medal at the continental level.
But the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) aims to bring the team back to the top four at next year's Asian Games in Indonesia, and propel them to the continent's top two by 2022.
The team were fifth at the 2014 Incheon Asiad.
"We are a little behind... but the boys are not very far away from the likes of Japan and China," said SSA vice-president (water polo) Samson Tan at the OCBC Aquatic Centre last evening.
To that end, the association has appointed Serbian Dejan Milakovic as the team's new coach on a two-year deal. Current coach Lee Sai Meng has been redesignated as the women's team coach.
Milakovic, 34, has been training the men's team for two months and is impressed with their vitality and determination.
"They are a young team who are willing to learn, and I see them stepping up to the challenge," he said yesterday.
"I hope they will continue with this rhythm and energy towards our goal of the gold medal (at the South-east Asia Games) in August."
While previously, the team would train once a day at this point of the season, Milakovic has asked players to do double sessions two to three times a week now, in order to close the gap on Asia's top teams like Kazakhstan, China and Japan, where players train up to 12 times a week.
He said: "The only way to close the gap between us and the top Asian teams is to train more. It's not easy to wake up at 6am to train but we have a positive mindset.
"We have five to six training sessions a week, but professionals train double of that. We have a lot of ground to cover. There's no substitute for time in the water."
Although the typical Singaporean's smaller physique has been seen as a barrier to break through at the Asian level, SSA assistant secretary-general (water polo) Ang Ban Leong believes this factor is no longer applicable today.
"When I look at our players these days, size is no longer a problem than it was during my time," said the 55-year-old, who was part of the team that clinched bronze at the 1986 Asiad.
"Now, the facilities are fantastic, there is a support structure in the SSI (Singapore Sports Institute), and everything has changed."
While Milakovic has been tasked with continuing Singapore's streak of winning gold medals at the South-east Asia (SEA) Games since 1965, Lee's mission is to guide the women back to the top in August's SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.
The women's team, who won the gold in 2011, lost 5-4 to Thailand in the final in 2015 at home. Women's water polo was not offered at the 2013 Games.
Former national goalkeeper Lee, 39, said: "We want to increase stamina, and we're working towards playing with more mobility.
"There are upcoming friendlies with the Japanese and Australians for us to gain more experience.
"Our overall goal is to regain the gold medal at the SEA Games."