You might have heard of Leonard Tan. A former national team captain, he led groups of swimmers at various major competitions in the 2000s.
Today, the 32-year-old is still leading swimmers – but in another role, as the National Youth Sports Institute (NYSI) head coach of swimming.
Having swum competitively from the age of eight, he retired after the 2007 SEA Games and began coaching part-time while in university, stepping into a full-time role upon graduation.
Tan, who is attached to the National Training Centre (NTC), expressed: “I’ve always wanted to coach. I want to give back to the sport in my own way.”
While he works with all of the nation’s top swimmers during their day-to-day training sessions, the youths come mostly under his charge, and he spearheads their “minor” Games campaigns, such as last year’s Commonwealth Youth Games (CYG).
Indeed, who better to take on this role than Tan, a young coach himself? A relatable and caring role model, he is committed to moulding the careers of his young charges, all while working towards a larger objective – to prepare a new crop of swimmers to shine at the 2024 Olympics.
To achieve this, he emphasises an athlete-first attitude above all, noting that “their interests and performance should always come first.”
This, he admitted, might not be easy.
Yet, he appreciates the challenge: “You deal not just with numbers and swimming up and down, but also human emotions, people’s careers, people’s lives.
Sometimes, you don’t have all the answers, and you’re forced to think out of the box in order to help an athlete cope with struggles and achieve breakthroughs in their swims.”
It is all about the human touch, as Tan believes, especially since the swimmers under his care are teenagers readying themselves for the elite senior track, and need that extra attention.
Besides, it helps that he’s been through it all before, knowing what they face both at school and in the pool.
Natasha Ong, an NTC swimmer on the CYG team that Tan had helmed last year, revealed: “I can go to him for advice on how to manage my swimming and studies. I can always count on him. He used to be a student-athlete too, and he can relate.”
“[Tan] serves as a role model to me. I look up to him because he’s so motivated and has so much passion. He has taught me a lot about self-confidence too. I’ve been struggling with low self-esteem, and he taught me to trust myself and be confident in my training, in what I can do. He told me to believe in myself and that’s the most valuable lesson I’ve learnt,” she added.
Ultimately, Tan is clear that these swimmers, while disciplined and professional, are not “superhuman”.
Beneath the glamour the competitions and medals bring, they are but youths who have taken on a greater responsibility than most of their peers.
“The younger ones have a lot to deal with at school and at training. They need help getting more sleep and juggling commitments. We pay attention to them and if there’s something off, we’ll touch base. It’s up to me as a coach to put their best interests first, and work together with them, even outside of swimming,” he explained.
And so, Tan has taken on the duty of guiding them in the formative years of their careers, in the hope that they will be ready to rise through the senior ranks in Asia and, subsequently, the world.
Beyond this year’s Asian Games, Junior Pan-Pacific Swimming Championships, and Youth Olympic Games, Tan and his young swimmers have their sights set on the 2024 Olympics – and it’s not just participation they’re gunning for.
Articulating his belief in the current high performance ecosystem, he said: “We can’t just have one [Joseph Schooling], who trained overseas. I dare say that we are capable of producing something special. With the planning, coaches, and proper developmental pathways, we’re definitely looking to show that we can produce world-level results in a local context.”
Besides, “every coach’s dream is to have an Olympic medallist,” he remarked.
Certainly, with his dedication in shaping these youths, alongside support from various stakeholders, it appears that Tan is on-track to achieving his dream.