The Singapore water polo team’s relentless hold on the SEA Games gold medal - 25 consecutive titles, if anyone’s counting - has led some to consider the competition to be a foregone conclusion.
However, to assume that the squad’s victorious run comes off the back of anything else other than hard work and sacrifice would be something of an affront to the players.
Just ask goalkeeper Nigel Tay, who played through a torn abductor muscle during the team’s decisive SEA Games 2013 fixture against Indonesia. Despite being in excruciating pain, the custodian fended off what would have been certain goals to clinch the top prize for Singapore once again.
A member of the national fold since 2007, the same year he made his SEA Games debut, Tay has amassed four gold medals from the competition and will very likely be in confident mood come June. The veteran noted that there have been considerable improvements over the past few years, bolstering the squad’s performance and placing them in a good position to challenge themselves further.
“I have been in the National team for eight years now and I have seen changes in coaches, training frameworks and the general administration as a whole,” Tay stated.
“I would say that the training framework has changed a lot largely due to the introduction of the SSI [Singapore Sports Institute] team that helped in refining our technique, intensifying our strength and conditioning as well as taking care of our psychological and dietary needs. Coaching styles have changed over the years, with more exposure to overseas teams like Japan or Kazakhstan, and we realised that there were fundamental errors in our training framework that needed change for us to advance further in the Asian realm.”
Indeed, for the reigning champions of Southeast Asian water polo, the next rung on the ladder would be establishing themselves on the continental stage. The Singapore side came close during Incheon 2014, but narrowly missed out on a place for the bronze medal play-off.
It was a particularly trying time for Tay, but he could sense that the team were heading in the right direction.
“Asian Games 2014 was a big stumbling block, because I had be re-enlisted into the army and had to be away from training very close to the Games. I managed to come out to train intermittently, but understandably, I was not in the best form for the games,” the Naval Medical Officer revealed.
“In the past, [the] Asian Games used to be just a training trip, but now for our current standard, we do go there with a totally different mentality, a mindset to win.”
It will be another four years before the Singapore water polo squad gets another go at the Asian Games, but the upcoming 28th SEA Games should prove to be an ideal distraction in the meantime.
As Tay puts it, the return of the regional meet after 22 years will be “an experience of a lifetime, simply because we are at home, and this is where our family, friends and local support will be.”
With home court advantage and passionate crowd behind them, bet against the Singapore national water polo team at your own peril.