SEA Games 2023: Ex-national stalwart returns to aid in quest to regain water polo gold

After a seven-year absence, Paul Tan is training hard again with new teammates to prove 2019 medal shock was an aberration

Water polo player Paul Tan returns to the Singapore national team after a seven-year absence. (PHOTO: Chia Han Keong/Yahoo News Singapore)
Water polo player Paul Tan returns to the Singapore national team after a seven-year absence. (PHOTO: Chia Han Keong/Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — If there is one gold medal which Singapore would want to recapture at the upcoming SEA Games, it is the men's water polo gold which they had lost for the first time in 54 years at the 2019 edition.

And to bolster their chances when the water polo competition begins on 12 May, four ex-national stalwarts have returned to the fold to lend their veteran experience and nous to the bid to regain gold in Phnom Penh. One of them is former vice-captain Paul Tan.

The 39-year-old, who last featured for the national squad in December 2016, had been involved in the youth development coaching setup when national coach Kan Aoyagi approached him on the possibility of rejoining the SEA Games squad late last year.

"He wanted another left-handed player in the squad, just to provide more attacking options. And as I am a water polo coach, I could also act as a mentor to the other left-handed player," he told Yahoo Southeast Asia after a morning training session at Toa Payoh Swimming Complex last month.

"As I've already doubled up as an unofficial assistant coach for the national squad, I was familiar with coach Kan's tactics and what he demands from the players. So my initial thoughts were that it would be possible for me to make a return to the national squad."

Considerations in juggling work, family commitments

It was not a straightforward decision to return, however.

Tan had initially retired after a fruitful career where he helped Singapore maintain their SEA Games gold-winning streak on four editions, and a key reason was to move on to the next stage in his life with his new family.

Seven years from his last major international competition, he now has two young sons - aged four and one - to take care of, in addition to his job as a physical-education teacher. To get back into the busy training schedule would take some considerable juggling of responsibilities.

"When coach Kan approached me last year, I just had my second son, and of course there were concerns on how I would be able to fit my trainings into my daily work, as well as my responsibilities as a dad to young kids," he said.

"To be a national water polo player is highly demanding on your fitness and physique. I can't be eating wrongly, for example. There is a whole process of keeping myself fit and sharp for training and competitive matches, and that would take a major chunk of my daily routine should I rejoin the national team.

"But eventually I figured out how I could balance all the aspects of my life, and I discussed with my wife on this. She asked me if I was really sure that I could do this again, and I told her I think I can. And so she got onboard and we figured out how to manage our parental duties as I began training."

Singapore water polo player Paul Tan in action during his previous national-team stint in 2016. (PHOTO: Facebook/Voux Photography)
Singapore water polo player Paul Tan in action during his previous national-team stint in 2016. (PHOTO: Facebook/Voux Photography)

Biggest challenge in return to national-team training

With his wife's blessing, Tan returned to the national team training early this year. Being the youth development coach since 2019 gave him the advantage of familiarity with coach Aoyagi's tactics and strategy, and also camaraderie with the national players, many of whom have been worked with him since their stints in the youth squads.

But while he was able to comfortably integrate with his national teammates, the bigger challenge was physical-wise - whether he could get his body in tip-top condition for the intense training schedules, as well as the punishing battles with opponents in the pool when the SEA Games competition begins.

"I think the big difference between training nowadays and when I was first with the national team is that I have to be wiser in managing my body," he said.

"It's about understanding what my body can or cannot do, and making sure I do proper recovery work to take care of myself after training.

"Going through this journey of being back in the national squad, it made me realise that it's all about managing my time properly, knowing myself a lot better, then a lot of things can be accomplished."

Out to prove Singapore's regional supremacy

As Tan prepares to take on the region's best in Phnom Penh, he knows that anything less than getting the gold medal back for Singapore would be considered as a disappointment.

Losing the water polo competition once might have been chalked off as an aberration, but losing twice would be indication that Singapore's dominance in Southeast Asia is no more.

Tan, however, sounded confident that he and his teammates can bring glory to Singapore again - if they play to their potential.

"To be honest, I felt we were unlucky to lose the gold in 2019. We didn't have a good tournament; it wasn't a case of we didn't have a team that was good enough," he said.

"Obviously it hurt to see the streak end, but it's about using that as a driving force to push the team in the past four years. Now the time has come for us to have that belief and self-confidence that, if we play our best game, we can beat anybody in the region.

"That's what we truly believe, and the next step now is to replicate that in Cambodia."

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