How a scholarship helped facilitate the rise of Singapore’s artistic swimming

Mr Peter Lim (third from left) with artistic swimmers Debbie Soh (left), Gwyneth Goh (second from left) and Miya Yong.

By Ruth Yap

The 2015 SEA Games artistic swimming gold medal team. Photo: Adrian Seetho

The rhinestones on their sleek-looking orange and blue swimsuits sparkled as the swimmers flipped and twirled, their bodies moving in sync with the upbeat music booming from the speakers in the OCBC Aquatic Centre. With their moves timed to perfection, it seemed like all eight swimmers had morphed into a single graceful entity in the pool.

At the 2015 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, Singapore’s artistic swimming team had wowed the crowd with a virtuoso display of underwater artistry and athleticism on home soil, or rather, water. Spectators were not the only ones impressed as judges also awarded top marks.

“It was amazing being part of the 2015 team that wrote history by winning Singapore’s first SEA games gold. I’m really glad we managed to do the country proud,” recalled Debbie Soh, 22.

It was a catalyst for more milestones to come. After finishing with two golds and one silver in 2015, Soh and her fellow swimmers bettered their medal haul two years later in Kuala Lumpur with three golds, two silvers and two bronzes.

In 2018, the team made its Asian Games debut in Jakarta, finishing a creditable seventh in the duet and team events. They have also since increased their international exposure by competing in Canada and the United States, the sport’s traditional powerhouses.

The artistic swimmers made their Asian Games debut at the Jakarta 2018 Asian Games. Photo: SportSG

But long before the sporting spotlight shone on artistic swimming, it has always had the constant support of the Singapore Olympic Foundation (SOF)-Peter Lim scholarship, which has played a crucial role in its development. The award provides student-athletes with financial aid to pursue their sporting dreams.

The number of artistic swimming’s recipients has increased in the last decade, from one in 2012 to eight this year. “It is a recognition of what they have achieved for their hard work,” said Mr Steve Chew, Singapore Swimming Association’s (SSA) vice-president of artistic swimming.


Lifting the financial burden

Crystal Yap, the first artistic swimmer to receive the SOF-Peter Lim scholarship, accepting her scholarship from Mr Heng Swee Keat, Deputy Prime Minister and then-Minister for Education, in 2012.

With an increasing number of swimmers receiving the award, more are now able to devote themselves fully to the sport without being hampered by financial considerations.

A fair sum of the money goes into paying for overseas expenses, which can cost thousands of dollars – in 2017, the swimmers had to fork out S$2,500 each to compete at the Japan Open.

Equipment is expensive too, with each costume costing up to S$350. “It’s been really helpful in offsetting some of the financial expenses,” said Debbie Soh, a four-time recipient. She estimates that she spends between S$300 to S$500 a year on the likes of training suits, resistance bands and weights.

“The Singapore Olympic Foundation-Peter Lim scholarship helps to cover most of my expenses,” added her duet partner Miya Yong, 20, a five-time recipient. “I am very thankful for the support and opportunities offered by the scholarship.”


An invaluable confidence booster

Besides concrete financial aid, the scholarship has also given athletes an invaluable motivational boost. To pull off such aesthetic precision in the water, the girls undergo grueling training six days a week, with each session lasting six to eight hours.

Such heavy commitments have led to high turnover rates in the national team, with most staying on the team for only one to two years. In fact, only two out of the 12 swimmers from the 2015 SEA Games gold-winning team remain today.

Team Singapore topped the artistic swimming medal table with three gold, two silver and two bronze medals at the 2017 SEA Games. Photo: Adrian Seetho

By recognising their efforts, the scholarship has encouraged more swimmers to continue competing. “I never expected to receive the scholarship, but I feel super happy that my efforts have paid off, and it’s motivated me to work even harder,” said two-time recipient Posh Soh, 17, who joined the national team in 2018.

“Recognition is good – that’s what we’ve always been aiming for,” said Debbie Soh, the team’s veteran of nine years. “It encourages younger girls to step up and trial for the national team.”


Looking to the next milestone

Thanks to its recent achievements, artistic swimming is gaining in popularity in Singapore. Before 2015, Mr Chew estimated that there were 80 to 100 swimmers spread across three clubs in the country. “Now we have seven to eight clubs with over 150 swimmers,” he said.

After having competed at the SEA and Asian Games, the swimmers are setting their sights on the pinnacle of all sports competitions: the Olympics.

Debbie Soh and her duet partner Miya Yong had been attempting to qualify for Tokyo 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and plan to continue once measures are lifted. If successful, it would be a momentous achievement – to date, only five Asian nations have competed at the Olympics.

Such targets, once thought unattainable, would not have been possible if not for the SOF-Peter Lim scholarship, noted Posh Soh. It also means synchronised swimming would be here for the long run too. “Having the scholarship may encourage more people to try the sport, and it reassures me that my sport would not just disappear,” she said.