SINGAPORE: Even as a child, James Leow knew he wanted to be a professional golfer.
“Playing junior golf and all, I’ve always been very competitive. And I’ve always wanted the best out of myself, striving to get better and better,” said Leow.
And so in 2018, the Singaporean headed to Arizona State University – a school that produced the likes of ex-world No 1 Jon Rahm and six-time Major winner Phil Mickelson.
This would provide him with the experience and the tools he needed, added Leow, who graduated last year and has turned pro.
“The first reason I went there was because I knew most of the pro golfers on the PGA Tour graduated from these colleges,” said Leow. “It was a good testament to the high level of golf or elite golf competition that is in the US.”
Leow is not alone, as the American collegiate route is one which some Singaporean athletes, including former Olympic champion Joseph Schooling, have taken over the years.
The trend has continued in recent times, with athletes across a range of sports furthering their development as well as their academic education in the US.
HAVING SOMEBODY TO CHASE
Competition is intense in US college sports. And young Singaporeans believe that being immersed in the NCAA environment can help raise their game.
“In the Ivy League itself, it’s competitive and there are people pushing me,” said Kam, who holds the Singapore U18, U20, U23 and indoor high jump national records.
“We don’t just compete within the Ivy League, we also travel to other schools. For example last year, we went to the Naval Academy, we had a meet with the Navy and a few other schools, and there were at least a couple of people that could jump above 2.05m … And that was something Singapore didn’t have.”
At other meets with the “Power Five” schools – schools in the five most prominent and highest-earning athletic conferences in NCAA Division I college football – high jumpers are registering scores of 2.15 to 2.20m, said Kam.
“It’s very, very good competition that you have access to on a weekly or monthly basis when the season starts,” he added.
At Virginia Tech, Lopez said his team had 12 swimmers at the World Championships and will potentially have 15 at next year’s Paris Olympics.
Competition helps to stretch athletes’ limits, added swimmer Tan, who met the Olympics “A” cut in the 50m freestyle earlier this year.
“Swimming with people who are much faster than you will always push you more and motivate you to train harder.
“It’s good exposure for me because I’m swimming with a lot of good college swimmers, and Singapore doesn’t have a lot of breaststrokers,” added fellow swimmer Chue.
“For once, I don’t feel like I’m alone, I actually have someone that I can chase. So it’s a good thing.”
For Leow, it was an “eye-opening experience” to understand the level he was at.
“As an athlete, nobody loves to lose or be in the bottom few. In fact for me, I knew what I was committing to – a college programme that is one of the top in the nation – and I knew what I wanted,” said Leow, who was ranked as high as 43rd in the world amateur standings.
“Instead of having a negative mindset about my first year – I was struggling and barely making the lineups and all that stuff – it was a motivation of what it takes to be up there with the top-ranked players on my team, as well as compete against fellow top international players.”
To be the best in the world, one needs to be surrounded by the best in the world, said Schooling, who graduated from the University of Texas at Austin.
“Being able to go shoulder to shoulder every single day with them gives you that confidence that if this guy is winning a gold medal, he’s on the podium, he’s breaking world records and I’m hanging with him in practice every single day – that gives you a huge confidence booster,” he added.
Realising that they are not necessarily the best athlete should be a “driving force”, added Singapore Aquatics’ Porter.
“They’re not necessarily going to go in as the best athlete where they are in Singapore and that should be a driving force for them,” she added.
“It should hit them in the gut where it becomes that thing to want to get to be the best athlete in that environment,”
Given the level of competition, it is vital that athletes do their own research in selecting a suitable school, said Singapore Golf Association general manager Joshua Ho.
“The selection of the team they go into is very important because you don’t want to be going to a system where you cannot make the team at all,” said Ho, a former national golfer.
“If you consistently can’t make it on the team, you basically don’t get the exposure that you intend to go there for. At the same time, you don’t want to be by far the best player there because then no one’s really pushing you to get better.”
At Virginia Tech, another “Power Five” school, athletes have full access to a suite of services including physiotherapists, psychologists, nutritionists and tutors, said Lopez.
Large sums of money are spent on recruiting athletes, with American football matches seeing 70,000 spectators.
“The way everything is organised here, it’s kind of like a professional team in most of the countries,” said Lopez. “It’s a different world.”
And with more money has come more access to services for student-athletes over the years said Lopez, a bronze medallist at the 1988 Olympics.
“It has evolved because there is more money involved, because the schools have been spending,” he added.
But not all schools have the same level of facilities.
For Chue, her school’s pool is a 45-minute bus ride away from the main campus. Given time constraints, training is sometimes held at a nearby pool instead.
“The downside of that is that in the afternoon, we have to share half of the pool with the public. And then after three o’clock – all the other high school swim clubs come and train,” she added.
For the Singapore Golf Association’s golfers abroad, coaches will arrange Zoom calls to plan their schedules as well as talk to them about their game.
“With the technology now, we use a statistics app. Everyone that plays keys in stats. Based on the stats, the coaches will know roughly how they are playing, the weaknesses, the strength of their game, and then from there can address some of their weaknesses and maybe give them some drills to perform over there,” said Ho.
The association also conducts a review every six months with both local and overseas players. Resources such as a psychologist are also available to national athletes, including those based abroad.
SportSG and SSI pay “close attention” to spexScholars in the US and will eventually do the same for those under the new spexPotential programme, said Gordon.
With the help of NSAs, the aim is to fill in the gaps for these athletes, and “tailor” things to fit their needs.
“We can provide additional services to those athletes. So for example, it might be in terms of … providing equipment that allows them better recovery, that they don’t necessarily pay attention to when they’re at university. If you’re at one of the big universities, the facilities and what is provided is excellent. But it doesn’t cover everything,” Gordon explained.
“There are things where we can value add. Not every university will provide the same services, and not every university provides an excellent service.”
Ultimately, there is a general consensus that athletes who go to the US help to grow the local sporting ecosystem.
“My personal experience is (that) the level of squash (in Singapore) has definitely increased (as a result), said Wan.
“There is that whole comfort level while they are in Singapore, whereas in the US there’s a lot more at stake – your place in a team, your financial support from the university. And when you are abroad when you have the Egyptians, the Indians and the Malaysians there fighting (it out). That whole competitive streak and environment influence you to get into it as well.”
Generally, golfers who have returned from the US have improved in terms of game management, said Ho. Being exposed to competition there allows them to learn more about themselves and their game, he added.
“It is knowing yourself a lot more because you put yourself in that kind of conditions a lot more often,” he said.
And following the success of individuals like Leow, interest in the collegiate route continues to grow, said Ho.
“As the national body, I don’t think we prescribe any particular way because we understand every athlete has their own aspirations and there’s no right way.”
But given the interest in the collegiate path, the Singapore Golf Association held a session in June this year where college coaches from the US presented and took questions from attendees.
“When we organised the session, we set a context it doesn’t mean … this is the way, but since you all wanted to know more information, and we are not experts in this area, we got the experts here,” Ho said.