Tuesday 24 December 2013

SEA Games: Goodbye Myanmar, hello Singapore 2015

By Chia Han Keong, The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2013

MYANMAR ended its successful hosting of the SEA Games with a closing ceremony in its capital last night, which also marked the beginning of a new chapter - for Singapore.

The ceremony marked the official start of the Republic's hosting of the 2015 Games, slated to be held from June 5 to 16.

In a symbolic handover gesture near the end of the ceremony, Mr Tint Hsan, chairman of the Myanmar SEA Games organising committee, handed the SEA Games flag to Singapore's Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin, who is also an executive committee member of the Singapore National Olympic Council. This was followed by a performance by Singapore Soka Association members and national gymnastics and taekwondo athletes.

Yesterday also saw the online launch of the 2015 Games' official website at www.seagames2015.com and Facebook page.

Other key components like the theme song, mascot and logo will be rolled out from next February.

Myanmar, meanwhile, last night drew a close to three weeks of competition with a lavish ceremony that marked the end of the 27th SEA Games.

Said Mr Tint Hsan: "Although the Asean region has so many different religions, dialects and traditions, the fact that we are able to compete in friendship throughout the SEA Games showed everyone the unifying power of sports."

Billed as the "coming-out party" of the once-reclusive nation, the Games gave Myanmar the opportunity to showcase not only its athletic prowess, but also its hospitality.

It won a record 86 golds, far above its previous best gold medal haul of 57, achieved in 1969 when it last hosted the Games. It also garnered 62 silvers and 85 bronzes this year.

Myanmar finished in second place on the medal table, behind Thailand, which won 107 golds, 94 silvers and 81 bronzes. Vietnam was third with a 73-86-86 tally.

Singapore finished sixth in the medal table with 34 golds, 29 silvers and 45 bronzes. While usual gold mines like swimming and sailing continued their winning tradition, the Republic's campaign was made memorable by several historic victories.

Dinah Chan (cycling), Saiyidah Aisyah (rowing), Janine Khoo (equestrian), Ho Han Boon (judo) and Chan Jing Ru (archery) won the first golds in their sports in at least 16 years, while Mok Ying Ren became the first Singaporean to win the men's marathon.

PM Lee hopes Singaporeans continue to support Team Singapore
By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 23 Dec 2013

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called on the nation to continue to unite and support Team Singapore (TeamSG).

Writing on his Facebook page on Monday, Mr Lee noted that the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Myanmar have ended, and the baton has passed to Singapore, which will host the next edition of the event in 2015 at the new Sports Hub.

Prime Minister Lee said he is sure Team Singapore athletes will continue to train hard and improve further.

As for the athletes who contributed to Singapore's haul of 34 gold, 29 silver, and 45 bronze medals, he said this is a time to savour their victories. 

And for the other athletes, the Prime Minister said the valuable experience gained will help Singapore do better in 2015. 

Lawrence Wong cheered by surprise successes
By Fabius Chen, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2013

CONTINUING one's dominance in a sport is one thing; breaking new ground in non-traditional areas of strength is another.

And it was Team Singapore's ability to do the latter at this year's SEA Games, which stood out most to Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong.

"What was striking for me, was that we didn't just do well in sports where we are traditionally strong," he said yesterday in an interview with Channel NewsAsia.

He was referring to the feats of athletes such as Mok Ying Ren, who won Singapore's first gold in the men's marathon, and Dinah Chan, the Republic's first female cyclist to strike Games gold. Others like equestrian rider Janine Khoo, archer Chan Jing Ru and judoka Ho Han Boon all ended decades-long waits for titles in their respective disciplines.

And then there was Saiyidah Aisyah, who overcame a lack of funding for her national sports association to become Singapore's first rowing champion since 1997.

"It's very encouraging to see that there are athletes taking up their own training, whatever the administration of the sport may be like," Mr Wong said.

"The Singapore Sports Council will try to support all sports as much as it can (but) there is no perfect funding formula."

Indeed, it remains to be seen if Saiyidah will get to defend her 2,000m women's lightweight single sculls title when the Games come to Singapore in two years.

According to Mr Wong, whether a sport will join the 30 already confirmed disciplines comes down to three factors - guidelines in the Games charter, views of federation members and how well the sport is organised locally.

He did, however, add that other aspects of the 2015 edition are on track, such as the putting out of a tender for accommodation, with organisers planning a "village within the city" concept, and using hotels instead of an athletes' village to house competitors.

It is also hoped that 15,000 volunteers will sign up to be a part of the Games - the first to be hosted by the Republic since 1993.

"The success of the Games is not just about the medals we win or the technical aspect," Mr Wong said. "It's having the whole nation come together, united in spirit, and supporting our athletes."

Job well done but 2015 up ahead
Pennefather salutes breakthroughs in Myanmar, urges NSAs to aim higher
By Chan U-gene, The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2013

AS THE curtain fell on the Myanmar SEA Games yesterday, Singapore will look back and remember the event as one that produced sweet results in unexpected quarters.

Paving the way for the Republic are Mok Ying Ren's first men's marathon gold, Chan Jing Ru's first archery gold in 30 years, Janine Khoo's first equestrian gold since 1995, judoka Ho Han Boon's first gold for his sport in 24 years, Dinah Chan's first gold for a woman cyclist and Saiyidah Aisyah's first gold in rowing since 1997.

The "breakthroughs" have not escaped Chef de Mission Annabel Pennefather's attention.

In her review of Singapore's performance yesterday, she said: "We have witnessed many breakthroughs in these Games and very pleasant surprise medals.

"We have seen many of those firsts here, from a wider range of sports, and several firsts in many decades and from quite a few young debutants."

She hopes that the athletes' achievements will inspire their respective sports to grow.

Remarkably, a few of the golden stars achieved success despite numerous obstacles and distractions.

For instance, Saiyidah triumphed despite less than ideal support as her association struggles to find consistent funding.

The 25-year-old, who became an instant online heroine after her win, hopes to raise rowing's profile and attract more funding.

Janine, 16, marked a remarkable comeback after being flung off a horse during training only two months ago. She broke her right cheekbone and fractured bones in her right eye socket.

But Singapore's traditional gold mines, such as swimming (11 golds), sailing (five golds) and table tennis (four golds) also did not disappoint.

The nation's 305-strong contingent garnered 34 golds, 29 silvers and 45 bronzes for sixth position in the 11-nation meet.

Thailand were first with 107-94-81 while hosts Myanmar missed out on their 100-gold target with 86-62-85.

As Singapore looks back on a job well done, Pennefather cautioned the athletes not to take their foot off the pedal ahead of the all-important next edition of the Games, when Singapore will play host in 18 months.

In swimming, for example, the Republic's dominance over regional rivals has diminished.

In 2009 and 2011, the swimmers won 44 and 45 per cent of the golds respectively. This year, they claimed only 34 per cent.

Said Pennefather: "It's clear that the other nations are not standing still and they also have young athletes who are coming up.

"It's going to be a big challenge going forward and I think that this has been a very useful gauge.

"I hope that all the national sports associations and athletes take away the lessons learnt, not only only from their victories but also from defeats.

"To review, reassess, how they move forward and to come back stronger and even more competitive when we host the Games in 2015 because that will be another real test for us, on our home ground."

Out of the 25 sports that the nation participated in, only three - golf, chess and wrestling - did not return with a medal.

But with chess returning to the Games since 2003, and wrestling formed only in 2009, Pennefather did not consider them to have under-performed.

Golf, however, was aiming for a medal but missed the putt.

She said: "Golf was expecting slightly better results but even Tiger Woods has a bad day.

"They are youngsters and we hope that they will have learnt from it and put it to use as they move forward."

Another sport that will need to improve is badminton, which scored its worst result in 16 years - dropping from one gold and four bronzes in 2009 in Indonesia to only one bronze in Myanmar.

Said Pennefather: "For badminton, they set their own targets and they know that perhaps they didn't perform here as they did in Jakarta.

"I think, internally, they are doing their own review and I'm sure they will have to take this seriously and see how they can be more competitive."

Next chapter will be boom or gloom
Myanmar must make use of new facilities or face white elephant curse
By Sanjay Nair, The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2013

NAYPYIDAW'S citizens did not wholeheartedly embrace the coming-out party of the SEA Games, although there were glimmers of hope that the US$400 million (S$500 million) spent on the event has not been completely wasted.

In one street, a giant screen, roughly the size of a badminton court, towered over a row of zinc-roofed shophouses.

Nearby, a group of children kicking a plastic ball around a dusty street paused to watch the action on the screen.

No translation was necessary for a visitor - the kids cheered and pointed enthusiastically at the Myanmar athlete slugging it out in a boxing bout.

In this moment of pure joy and hero-worship, the 27th SEA Games may have created a legacy that extends beyond the Dec 11-22 showpiece.

"If our youngsters are inspired and strive to be Myanmar sporting heroes one day, our job as hosts is done," Khin Maung Lwin, joint secretary general of the Myanmar Olympic Committee, told The Straits Times.

The 86 gold medals which the host won - second only to Thailand, who finished top with 107 - should provide sufficient encouragement to the country's young people.

Still, much work remains for Naypyidaw to avoid being tagged as a forgotten city after staging a major sporting event.

As the 6,000 athletes from 11 countries depart from Myanmar's "coming-out" party, the next task is to plan the festivities for its own people.

To boost its prestige and image, the former junta state had pumped in the cash to host the multi-sports extravaganza for the first time since 1969.

Modern venues such as the Wunna Theikdi sports complex - which comprises an outdoor stadium, three indoor arenas and an aquatic complex - were constructed in tandem with eight-lane expressways and high-speed Internet servers.

But, having struggled to fill up most venues during the Games itself, the prospect of them turning into dreaded white elephants looms large.

Even after offering free tickets for all events apart from football, organisers were forced to fill the stands with kids on school excursions.

While first-time Games hosts Vietnam (2003) and Laos (2009) had residents flocking to most competitions, Myanmar crowds were drawn only to traditional favourites such as boxing and football.

Hotel executive Waung Pyae Phyo said: "In the last few months, our media have focused mainly on our footballers and boxers, so people don't know much about other sports and are not bothered to find out more."

Singapore's Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin, who watched the final few days of competition, said it remains to be seen if Myanmar can avoid the struggles faced by Beijing in finding "meaningful use" for its sports facilities.

Since the 2008 Olympics, the iconic Bird's Nest Stadium has been described as a "museum piece" by some China politicians while the nearby Olympics aquatic centre has been turned into a water park to stay afloat.

Mr Tan, who is also an executive committee member of the Singapore National Olympic Council, said: "China had problems, even with a big population and a fairly strong sporting heritage.

"All Games hosts always face this challenge... but Myanmar have said they have plans to keep their venues sustainable."

Myanmar officials announced last week that the new stadiums in Naypyidaw will be used to house a sports university.

National sports competitions will also be staged there, perhaps to boost morale in a country where a third of the population lives in poverty.

The 30,000-capacity Zayyathiri Stadium - which boasts a first-rate football pitch - is expected to be the new home of top division outfit Naypyidaw FC, who currently play in a decrepit venue on the outskirts.

Club follower Zaw Than Aung, 38, said: "It wasn't attractive to be a footballer but, now, a young boy can see himself playing in a big stadium.

"This stadium could be just what the club needs to make a name for itself outside Myanmar."

The rest of Naypyidaw - one of the world's top 10 fastest-growing cities - hopes to follow suit.

Once a greenfield site in the shrubland, bungalows and hotels are sprouting up across the city, which was built in secret more than a decade ago to replace former capital Yangon.

Singapore's chef de mission Annabel Pennefather quipped that the sprawling city, with a population of just 925,000, made for a good holiday home.

Besides showcasing Myanmar to its neighbours, the Games also opened up its own people's eyes to other non-traditional sports.

At the popular Myo Ma street market, eight-year-old student Aun Min stares determinedly at a newspaper cutting of judo gold medallist Yan Naing Soe.

Through a translator, he said: "One day, my name will be in the newspaper like him - I will win a SEA Games medal."

Golden girls never say die

If three Singapore athletes at the SEA Games stand out for sheer grit, they are Janine Khoo, Dinah Chan and Saiyidah Aisyah. Rower Saiyidah had a surfboard slam into her face, breaking her nose and tearing part of her retina. Equestrian Khoo was flung from her horse, face-first into a fence. Cyclist Chan collided with a car and lost her front teeth. The accidents happened within a span of three months before the Games, but all three not only recovered, but also went on to win gold. They tell The Sunday Times how they did it, and who helped them in their quest for glory.
By Chua Siang Yee, The Sunday Times, 22 Dec 2013

Winning on a wave of support

Just four days after winning a gold medal at the SEA Games, Saiyidah Aisyah was back at the Singapore Rowing Association (SRA) headquarters, training and coaching her younger team-mates yesterday morning.

While some would want nothing more than to relax after a gruelling season - which culminated in her securing Singapore's first rowing gold since 1997 - Saiyidah could not wait to rejoin the rowing fraternity and be with the people who have been supporting her since she picked up the sport at 14.

Like an extended family, they had stood by her throughout this trying journey filled with self-doubt, a perennial lack of funding and injuries.

Saiyidah recalled the numerous times she broke down in training when the pressure mounted and she worried that she would not hit her training targets, like clocking under two minutes for a 500m sprint.

"There were many times when I cried during training because I thought I didn't do as well as I could have," said Saiyidah, who lives with her mother and stepfather. "I have very high expectations, and with so much on the line, it becomes very frustrating when I couldn't meet them."

She credits SRA president Nicholas Ee and coaches Alan Bennett and Goken Sakamoto for helping her through this difficult period, which included her taking no-pay leave from her job as a student development manager at Ngee Ann Polytechnic for 11 weeks.

"Every time I broke down, which happened quite often, my coaches Alan and Goken would tell me not to think too much about things I could not control. Their words really had a profound effect on me, and I could block out all distractions," said the 25-year-old, who trains at Pandan Reservoir six days a week from 6am to 8am.

"Nicholas had a lot of faith in me and would help take care of my expenses. He told me not to worry about money, and to focus on training."

She said Mr Ee pays for her airfare when she travels for competitions; he also does repair work and pays for the petrol for the safety boats during training.

It helped that she was driven to prove doubters wrong. Said Saiyidah, who has three bronze medals from two previous SEA Games: "The problems I faced only made me want to win even more. I was determined to give back to rowing, and raise the profile of a sport which has done so much for me."

This determination helped her overcome a broken nose and an eye injury she suffered on Oct 3. She was enjoying a day off at the beach during a training stint in Sydney when a wave sent her crashing head-first into a surfboard.

It also helped her bounce back from the news that rowing will not be among the 30 sports contested at the 2015 SEA Games here.

For Mr Bennett, 56, who trained Saiyidah in Sydney, nothing warms his heart more than to see his "extended daughter" succeed.

He said: "The reason for her success is simple. She works extremely hard, she is dedicated to the sport, and she is willing to make sacrifices that not many people would.

"She has a lot of potential, and I am glad she performed at a time when the pressure was on."

Riding high despite accident
By Chan U-gene, The Sunday Times, 22 Dec 2013

She was flung off her horse and flew face first into the frame of a showjumping fence, breaking it in the process.

But lying in the back of an ambulance with a swollen face, her vision blurred and the extent of her injury unknown, there were only two things on SEA Games gold medallist Janine Khoo's mind - to complete her O-level examination 10 days later and to compete in the SEA Games two months after.

Her mother, Mrs Carol Khoo, 48, who was with her as they rushed to the Singapore General Hospital, said: "She was lying flat, she couldn't get up.

"We did not know the extent of her injury, whether it was her whole neck, her back or her head. We were really fearful because she couldn't walk.

"But all she said was, 'Mum, I want these two things.'"

The Oct 16 fall had smashed Janine's right cheekbone and fractured two other bones in her right eye socket.

But after a five-hour operation, four days in hospital, the insertion of four titanium plates in her face and 21 stitches, the 16-year-old was back at the National Equestrian Centre asking to ride again.

And this, only two weeks after the accident.

At first, her request to resume training was turned down by her coach, Mr Roy Ibrahim, who wanted approval from the doctors first.

Said Janine, who was training four hours a day, six days a week, before the fall: "I was determined to go to the SEA Games. I had trained for so long.

"My parents and coaches were concerned, but I wasn't afraid."

So, armed with a bag of heart-shaped jellies, Janine persuaded her doctor to hand her a letter of approval.

Three weeks after the accident, she was back on horses.

Won over by their daughter's determination, her parents, Mrs Khoo and Mr Khoo Teng Cheong, 49, a former national swimmer, put their fears aside and got 100 per cent behind her comeback.

Said Mrs Khoo, a housewife: "Her determination never wavers. She has always been like that, even as a child.

"We call her our steel magnolia; she is gentle on the outside, but she has a backbone of steel."

Agreed Mr Khoo: "As parents, we were concerned.

"But riding has always been part of her life, and if she is able to do it, we will support her.

"So, we kept focused on the things that needed to be done to make sure she recovered properly."

That included treating her wounds, trips to the doctor and preparing suitable meals after the operation, when she could not chew solid food.

As her daughter got right back in the saddle, Mrs Khoo continued dutifully in her support role in Team Janine.

Playing chauffeur, chef and nurse, the mother ensured that her daughter, a straight-A student, could focus on her studies and sport.

Even the principal and teachers of Methodist Girls' School, where Janine studies, got in on the act.

They successfully asked for their student to be allotted additional time to complete her O-level papers as her depth perception in her right eye was affected after the accident.

They gave her supplementary lessons to help her get back on track and even offered tuition sessions at her home.

For Janine, all the help she had received before her individual showjumping gold - a first for Singapore in 30 years - in Myanmar made it all the more valuable.

She said: "My parents, they immediately supported my decision to go back to riding. And everyone around me - from my family, to my coach - has been so supportive. I am really grateful for all the help I have received.

"I have loved horses since I was two, and I just cannot imagine my life without them."

Back on her bike a week after crash
By Chan U-gene, The Sunday Times, 22 Dec 2013

Last week, in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Dinah Chan received a Facebook message from a fellow Team Singapore athlete - Saiyidah Aisyah.

In it, the rower said she was inspired by Chan to come back from her own injury to compete at the SEA Games.

Chan, 27, was pleasantly surprised to receive the message. She said: "I thought to myself, 'Wah,I inspire people? Really, ah?'

"And then I heard of the rider Janine and Saiyidah's stories, on how they also came back from injury, and then I felt that their injuries actually sound much worse than mine."

The cyclist may have been slightly dismissive of the seriousness of her own injuries, but Chan had a close brush with disaster three months ago.

On Sept 16, during a training session, she collided with a car along East Coast Park Service Road and was flung about 3m off her bicycle.

She was knocked unconscious, and continued to drift in and out of consciousness in the next few hours while she was hospitalised at the Changi General Hospital.

Fortunately, she did not break any bones as she had landed on a grass patch. Her helmet, which cracked, also protected her from serious head injuries.

But she was still left with bruised limbs, abrasions, swollen lips and broken front teeth.

A week after her accident, she was back on the bike. Twelve weeks later, she competed in the 30km individual time trial in Myanmar and became the first Singapore woman to win a SEA Games cycling gold.

But Chan, who took six months of no-pay leave from her job as a PE and biology teacher to prepare for the event, said she was not alone in her journey to recovery.

Her family, friends, team-mates, doctors and nurses have been her pillars of strength.

She received dozens of "get well soon" hampers and many text messages - they took her three hours to reply once she was well enough.

When she started training again, her team-mates came up with a schedule so she would always be accompanied by at least one other rider whenever she rode from home to training and back.

Chan said: "When I started training, I still had bouts of giddiness, especially when I stood up suddenly after sitting or lying down for a long time.

"But I felt ready to start riding, and my team-mates came together to ensure that there was someone riding with me every day."

Chan had kept the news of the accident from her parents until the next day, as she did not want them to worry.

The accident had a silver lining, however - it strengthened the bond between her and her siblings.

In the days immediately following the accident, it was her brother Kenneth, 30, and sister Jocelyn, 25, who carried her through.

The cyclist said: "They were there every day. Honestly, I am not that close to my brother as since young, he was always bullying us.

"So, I guess the accident, in a way, brought us closer.

"He and my sister were there every day. When I didn't feel like eating, they would buy me anything I wanted, like soya bean and fruit juice."

Said Jocelyn, a piano technician: "I am so glad she recovered, no broken bones. I visited her every day and helped to bathe her and wash her hair for the next few days because with abrasions and wounds all over, she could hardly move.

"But even when she was in the hospital bed, she was counting down the days to get back on the bicycle."

'Fat' jibes drive Ho to S'pore's first judo gold in 24 years
By Chan U-gene, The Sunday Times, 22 Dec 2013

He was laughed at by classmates when he picked up judo as a co-curricular activity at East View Secondary School.

Said Ho Han Boon: "They called me fat and they all laughed. They asked me, 'You are so fat, are you sure you have the stamina to do this sport?'"

So, for years, he slogged away, keeping those taunts in mind, and quietly channelling criticism into motivation.

And yesterday, at the Zayar Thiri Indoor Stadium, the 25-year-old Singaporean had the last laugh - and put to rest any doubts about his ability in the sport.

Ho, the biggest athlete in the Republic's contingent - at 180kg and 1.92m tall, he is some 48kg heavier than Team Singapore's other behemoth, thrower James Wong - won Singapore's final gold in the 27th SEA Games as he shrugged off the challenges from two other opponents to claim victory in the men's over-100kg class.

His win was also judo's first gold for Singapore since the 1989 Games.

Thailand's Kaeawpaokdee Saknarin and Malaysia's Abdul Razak were second and third, respectively.

Standing at least a head taller than both his opponents, Ho went on to prove that he was indeed above the competition, seeing both judokas off with ippons.

The Singaporean, a judo coach for a secondary school and a polytechnic, who is also studying for a diploma in hospitality and tourism at the PSB Academy, however, did not go straight for the throwdown.

In both bouts, he used his superior physique to his advantage, keeping his opponents close and applying his weight to roll them over for the win.

Said team manager Gerard Lim: "In both matches he was losing on points at first, but he kept his composure.

"He was basically trying to get up close, working his way slowly. Then, he just grabbed them, steam-rolled over them, and held them down."

Ho, who was making his Games debut, added that winning the gold medal has been his dream since he was a teenager. He had picked up the sport following a CCA fair in secondary school, when he saw "people getting thrown around, people doing flicks, (and) it looked kind of cool".

On the final, he said: "I was actually quite nervous because my opponents were very experienced. It went really well for me and it is a great honour, after so many years, to make Singapore judo proud."

His six-member team ended their four-day campaign with one gold, one silver and two bronzes.

Gary Chow took silver in the Under-81kg category, while the bronzes were claimed by Gabriel Yang (U-90kg) and Timothy Low (U-100kg).

Said a delighted Lim: "After 24 years, it's our first gold. Of course, we are all happy."

Motivation from rejection
2011 Games snub spurred Singapore divers on to long-awaited medal haul
By Chua Siang Yee, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2013

TWO years ago, they were deemed not good enough to represent Singapore at the 2011 SEA Games.

Yesterday, divers Timothy Lee and Myra Lee, together with Timothy's twin Mark, returned from Myanmar with their heads held high, after punching well above their weight to clinch four medals at the recently-concluded SEA Games.

It was a remarkable turnaround for the six-member contingent, all of whom picked up the sport only in 2009, when Singapore Diving launched its "Learn to Dive" programme.

Myra, 19, who sealed a bronze in the synchronised 3m springboard with partner Fong Kay Yian, said: "It was upsetting when we first found out we could not go to the SEA Games (in 2011).

"But you don't give up after one setback.

"We worked extra hard after that, and we kept telling ourselves we had to make it."

Galvanised by that rejection, the national team kept plugging away, training six days a week for at least 30 hours.

The fruit of their labour started to pay off last year, when they bagged three silvers and three bronzes at the inaugural South-east Asia Swimming Championships.

Then, in August, Myra, Kay Yian, Timothy, Mark, Arizir Fong, and Kimberly Chan got the news they were all waiting for.

"Damien (Ler, team manager), added us in a text message group with the title 'You all made it to the SEA GAMES'," recalled Myra, a Singapore Management University social sciences undergraduate. "I was so happy, and it was sweet reward for all our hard work."

The team stepped up training, and embarked on a gruelling five-week training trip in Guangzhou last month.

Timothy, 19, who won a silver and a bronze in the synchronised platform and springboard respectively, said: "The training in Guangzhou was intense. My body ached for days on end, but it was worth it. There were no distractions, and we could focus solely on diving."

Their haul of four medals - two silvers and two bronzes - stunned everyone, including themselves. The last four-medal return was in 1973, long before anyone in the current squad - with an average age of 18.7 years - was born.

Mark, whose silver in the 3m springboard last Thursday was the Republic's first SEA Games diving medal since 1985, said: "I was packing up and getting ready to leave after my dive, until I was stopped by the officials.

"I didn't know I was second, and when I saw the scoreboard, I thought there was an error! I think I did well because I didn't give myself any pressure. I just wanted to score a personal best."

Myra added: "Our target was for everyone to achieve their personal bests. The number of medals was a complete surprise."

Looking forward, the immediate target for the divers is to bridge the gap with Causeway rivals Malaysia.

That will not be easy. Malaysia are second only to China in Asian diving. Last year, they had eight representatives at the London Olympics, and won a bronze medal in the women's 10m platform.

They also swept all the gold medals on show in Myanmar.

But, for the Singaporeans who plunge from 10m platforms into cold water six days a week, this is just another leap - of faith.

Said Timothy, 19: "It will take a long time but, hopefully, we can catch up. At the very least, we hope to give the Malaysians a run for their money in 2015."

Mark added: "The silver medal has given me more belief. I'm confident we can do well again in 2015."

From golden boy to homecoming king
Pressure will be on Schooling again to deliver when S'pore hosts Games
By Chan U-gene, The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2013

TWO years ago in Indonesia, Joseph Schooling, a pimply teenager, took his first plunge in a SEA Games swimming meet - and surfaced with two gold medals.

His winning performance in the 50m and 200m butterfly generated a wave of excitement and promised more great things to come.

The 18-year-old did not disappoint.

At the just-ended Myanmar SEA Games at the Wunna Theikdi Swimming Complex, he garnered five golds and one silver to be crowned king of the pool and the event's most decorated swimmer.

A lot has changed for Schooling since Palembang 2011. Despite the immense pressure and high expectations placed on his shoulders, he did not crack.

Instead, he responded with record-breaking times.

Said Singapore's chef de mission Annabel Pennefather: "I am extremely happy for Joseph because he has met his objectives.

"He has had a lot of pressure placed on him before the Games."

At Naypyidaw, Schooling could not afford to fail, especially since the government made a landmark decision two months ago to grant him deferment from national service.

Said the United States-based swimmer: "At the last Games in Indonesia, I wasn't expecting anything. Of course, I wanted to win but I didn't really set any goals.

"Now, everything has changed.

"Before the Myanmar Games, I even said I wanted to win all my events.

"Expectations were high, not only my own, but also of the country, and everyone else too."

Indeed - but his six-medal booty should please his backers and fans.

Physically, he has grown not just in stature but also in physique. He has shot up 5cm in height to 1.84m and added 7kg to his 78kg muscular frame.

And, yes, he no longer wears L-sized Team Singapore uniforms. They are now XL.

Surprisingly, his growth in muscle mass has been unaided by weight-training.

Schooling, who trains with coach Sergio Lopez in Florida, uses body-weight exercises and medicine balls for dry-land training.

The final-year Bolles School student prefers to hold off on the weight training until he teams up with the strength and conditioning coach of the University of Texas, where he will begin school next year.

His success in the pool and good looks have also not gone unnoticed in the Games village.

Close to 100 fans and fellow athletes wanted to be photographed with him.

"It feels good to be recognised. It's always good to feel that your efforts are being appreciated.

"I think everyone likes to be recognised for the hard work they put in," he noted.

Once, during a warm-down session at a training pool, some fans interrupted him to have a picture taken.

He obliged but received an earful from one of the national coaches later.

In 2015, when the Games arrive in Singapore, he will be counted on to shine once again.

Perhaps, even more so.

He aims to take part in even more events, even though he has yet to decide on the number.

In Myanmar, he won gold medals in the 100m and 200m fly, 200m individual medley as well as the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays.

He bagged a silver in the 4x100m medley relay.

Said Schooling, who is ultimately aiming for a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics: "Two years ago, I didn't swim the freestyle and this year I got the national 200m free record.

"Maybe, I'll swim breaststroke in Singapore. Who knows, I could do well in it too.

"But, yes, I want to take part in more events, maybe in the 400m individual medley and the 100m backstroke.

"Hopefully, we can put together a good relay team too."

One possible option is the 200m freestyle.

His personal best of 1min 49.47sec in that event was faster than Vietnam champion Hoang Quy Phuoc's 1:50.64.

But his main aim now is a well-earned rest back home in Singapore with his parents Colin and May.

For the past three years, the Christmas period was typically the only time when the family could spend a couple of weeks together as he took a break from the pool.

They also plan on squeezing in a short trip to Ipoh, where his mother was born, before he returns to the US in the first week of next month.

Said Schooling: "I want some downtime, some quiet time, nothing too crazy. Just to relax and chill out like normal kids do.

"I will take a week off, and then slowly get back to training."

For him, more battles lie ahead, starting with his much-anticipated debut at next year's Asian Games.

At Incheon in South Korea, there will be more challengers to face.

But first up is a more familiar foe in the form of his father as they prepare for their annual 18-hole golf showdown within the next two weeks.

Said Colin: "On the golf course, he knows he can talk to me about everything.

"It's how I spend time with my son as he is growing up really fast."

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