Before sporting legend Ang Peng Siong graces the upcoming Singapore (SG) Buzz events in SG Buzz Dallas (5 Apr) and SG Buzz Houston (6 Apr) as our distinguished speaker, I catch up with him at his swim school, the Aquatic Performance Swim Club, in Farrer Park. Peng Siong talks about the past, present and future. And from him, I took home three valuable lessons.
I’ve only heard so much about him: the fastest swimmer in the world in 1982 in the 50m freestyle, Olympic athlete in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and winner of numerous medals and awards throughout his illustrious swimming career. I soon found out that he isn’t just a sports legend. He’s also a passionate historian, a family man and a futurist.
The Passionate Historian
What I didn’t expect was a history lesson from Peng Siong on the get go. He spoke of the seemingly run-down swimming complex that was really his first training ground, and in essence, his roots and where he making of a champion all began. All of a sudden the physical space took on a historical significance. And what I soon learnt was that the swimming complex in Farrer Park was just one part of a significant area in Singapore’s sporting history.
He enlightened me of the sporting icons who had their humble beginnings in the sporting grounds of Farrer Park – the Martens family (hockey), and (athletics), and (squash).
“People want to know where the birth place of sports is, when their grandparents played. They want to know where they can associate sports with. And if we are talking about using sports to bond the nation, we must appreciate the history behind it,” says Peng Siong. Farrer Park certainly holds a special place in his heart and in Singapore’s history.
The Family Man
Serving three years as the National Head Coach has been a very rewarding experience for Peng Siong. Since stepping down in September last year and returning as Managing Director of his swim school, he appreciates being able to spend more time with his family, especially his son who is coming to ten years of age.
“I did not have a lot of opportunity to spend quality time with him, especially the first three years of his primary school. It’s my time now to catch up. At this age, he needs a fatherly figure to guide him through the right path.”
Dispensing some of his own parenting advice, he says, “It’s all about encouraging and whenever he sees something as a chore, you got to position it differently, share the reasons why he is doing it.”
Peng Siong’s biggest parental challenge? “Getting my son to enjoy Mandarin!”
Peng Siong sat in the Committee on Sporting Singapore in 2001 and actively participated in shaping the nation’s sporting future. “One of the best outcomes was the Sports School, and the new Sports Hub being based back in Kallang. There was thought of shifting the National Stadium to somewhere ulu. To create a sense of culture, we’ll need a presence.”
At the same time, Peng Siong believes more can be done to build on Singapore’s sporting culture and performance, especially in attracting specialists – sports psychologists, physiologists and consultants – needed to support and develop the sporting ecosystem. As the dome of the new National Stadium takes shape, it evolves as a reflection of what exciting things are in store for the future.
It seems poetic that Peng Siong has returned to his roots; to where he was first trained and to now be nurturing Singapore’s future swimming champions. Periodically in our conversation, he turns away to glance over his shoulder to watch the children and teenagers in a distance taking turns diving into the pool.
From my chat with Peng Siong, I come away with three lessons.
Lesson One: It takes dedication and focus
When Peng Siong was given the rare opportunity to study abroad in Houston for six years, one can imagine the challenge of balancing studies and a gruesome training regime. Not to mention the many distractions of college life, among them – parties, and alcohol. “Some of my roommates would buy a keg of beer and have them for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he reminisces.
Armed with a strong sense of responsibility and discipline, he knew he had to stay focused. He has his father to thank for the lesson on dedication: “I think the important thing is to know where your limit is. This is where my respect for my dad played a strong part. I saw my dad get up early to coach swimmers at 5.30 in the morning, then he would work till 5 p.m. and in the evening, he would continue his passion for judo. You can see the dedication in him. He’s who I picked up the values from, that’s how I managed to maintain my focus in college. So most of the time [instead of going to parties], I stayed back and ate healthy and boring dorm food!”
Lesson Two: Don’t whine
Having coached many able-bodied and disabled swimmers, he shares that the disabled swimmers have taught him many valuable lessons. What impressed on him most is their fierce independence: “They train just as hard as anyone else. If they are given the opportunity to excel, they would take on the challenge.”
“When you see them overcome their challenges, you can reflect upon yourself. In fact during combined training camps overseas, the disabled actually put the able-bodied in their place. Previously, the able-bodied swimmers would whine about training, but when they first trained with the disabled swimmers who did not complain one bit, they stopped whining and persevered and endured.”
Lesson Three: Have the will to challenge failure
Peng Siong is no stranger to setbacks in his life. The one setback that seems seared in his memory was the 1988 Olympics in Seoul where he missed the finals by one place. “It was quite devastating. I remember I cried.”
Good thing Peng Siong’s no stranger to comebacks either. A dedicated coach, he’s trained many athletes to achieve their peak performance. His biggest reward has been helping athletes win gold medals and the Beijing Paralympics was that comeback moment for him when Pin Xiu won the women’s 50 meter backstroke. “It took 14 years, but that was a good comeback for me.”
“The will to challenge failure must be stronger than the desire to win,” quips Peng Siong.
“Whose quote is that?” I asked, feeling extremely inspired.
“It’s mine,” he pauses. “Maybe I should do a copyright thing,” he laughs.
By Tan Meng Chuan
Singapore’s legendary Olympian shares more about his life experiences, stories and lessons at the upcoming SG Buzz events in USA. Register today for SG Buzz Dallas (5 Apr) and SG Buzz Houston (6 Apr)!