The Lopez legacy: Instilling belief
Departing coach Lopez tells young swimmers to have faith; advises parents not to push kids
His assistant Gary Tan had once told him that his training sets were nothing out of the ordinary.
But, in the 20 months that Sergio Lopez has been Singapore's national coach, he has instilled in the swimmers at the National Training Centre something valuable: Belief.
Belief, that they can cut it at the highest levels, and being empowered to take charge of their own improvement.
He acknowledged that swimming will become popular in the wake of Joseph Schooling's unprecedented triumph in the 100m butterfly in Rio.
But he cautioned parents against expecting their children to be the next Schooling.
Lopez said: "Parents have to be realistic. You have to give your kids a chance to be successful, but don't push them to be Joseph Schooling.
"(Colin) Schooling hasn't pushed his son to be what he is now... if you want to be good at something in life you have to be able to jump through hurdles.
"Joseph's parents found a way for him, somebody else will find another way. But you have to push ahead."
The 48-year-old leaves this morning for the United States and starts work on Monday as the associate head coach at Auburn University, but he hopes the swimmers will "stay the course" with his philosophy.
"What needs to be done is to keep embracing what we've done," said the American, at the sidelines of his talk at the launch of the International Sports Academy's Singapore Convention on Health, Fitness and Sports at the Sports Hub Library yesterday.
"The 33 swimmers that we have in the National Training Centre, now they think differently.
"If they embrace that thought process, you will have maybe three or four out of those 33 swimming at a very high level and it puts you on the map."
Among his proudest moments in his tenure here - his contract was up till 2020 - were that he managed to get senior swimmers like Amanda Lim and Roanne Ho to rethink retirement.
"When I first got here I saw a group of kids who were going to stop swimming six months later, and now they are thinking of swimming until 2020," said the former Bolles School head coach.
"Roanne Ho, (Quah) Ting Wen, Amanda (Lim) or Pang (Sheng Jun), these are the older guys who are still young... and now they are thinking about 2018 (Asian and Commonwealth Games) or 2020 (Tokyo Olympics)."
But he hinted during the 35-minute interview, without elaborating, that he ran into roadblocks trying to do his job during his brief stay.
"I thought that I was coming to a very organised country, and you are very unorganised... I lost my temper a lot, and I haven't lost my temper a lot since I was a teenager.
"I couldn't understand certain things, those are real frustrations that hopefully have helped me become better."
During the talk, he told the almost 200 coaches that being a good coach means more than just drilling the swimmers to swim faster and train harder.
It also means observing them, understanding their issues and caring for them as one would for their own children.
"(Coaching) is not an occupation, but a vocation," he said. "Some days, your spouse and children will hate you for your job, and it will be hard to separate your feelings from your task."
Quah can be next Schooling, says coach
POTENTIAL: Lopez (right) feels Quah Zheng Wen (left) can make a big splash at the Tokyo Olympics. PHOTO: ST FILE
When Sergio Lopez first saw Quah Zheng Wen in action at the 2011 South-east Asia Games in Palembang, he was already impressed enough to warn his swimmer Joseph Schooling.
The then-Bolles School head coach told Schooling then: "If you don't hurry up, this guy is going to kick your a** and beat you."
The 48-year-old has since had the opportunity to work with Quah, 19, for almost 20 months as the national coach, and guided him to semi-final finishes in the men's 100m and 200m fly at the Rio Olympics.
And if the swimmer continues on his path, Lopez has no doubt that Quah will do well at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
"I think Zheng Wen has the same potential as Joseph Schooling," Lopez said at the sidelines of a talk by the International Sports Academy at the Sports Hub Library yesterday.
"He is a gifted kid, he works hard and he hates to lose; you'd have to teach him and Joseph to control themselves.
"The good thing about this is they have become good friends and they understand that they can be the best together."
While Olympic champion Schooling has had his full-time national service deferred until Tokyo 2020, Quah has not applied for another deferment, with his postponement ending this month.
Quah needs to set his own goals and work towards these targets in the next four years, Lopez added.
"He needs to take one day at a time and make sure he understands his goals and keeps track of them. His goals, not everyone else's."
With the World Championships in Hungary next year, as well as the Asian and Commonwealth Games in 2018, there is no shortage of top-level competition that Quah can challenge himself in, and Lopez acknowledges that the swimmer will come under scrutiny if he does not do well.
The swimmer received criticism from some media outlets, including The New Paper, when he failed to stop for interviews after some races in Rio.
Lopez lambasted the criticism against the swimmer and said: "You want to tell me he is using government money... sure, he needs to answer to the association, the sports institute, but right away he doesn't have to come out and give you an answer.
"Could he have had more etiquette? I don't know...
"But I think Zheng Wen has probably learned a big lesson, and next time he might stop and look at people and say 'just wait five minutes, I want to talk to my coaches, I want to cool down, then I come back and talk'."
- LIM SAY HENG
Gary ready to step up
By his own admission, assistant national swim coach Gary Tan had been a very "hot tempered" trainer in the recent past.
But marriage, impending fatherhood, and a 20-month tutelage under departing national coach Sergio Lopez has changed the two-time Olympian for the better.
Now calmer, more reflective and more caring, the 34-year-old (pictured) is ready to succeed Lopez, with the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) expected to appoint him soon.
"If put to task, I think I am ready for the responsibility to do the right things and continue the legacy that Sergio has put in place," said Tan, on the sidelines of a talk organised by the International Sports Academy at the Sports Hub Library yesterday. "People say I lack the experience, but, actually over the (20 months), I have been working closely with Sergio and doing a lot of things together with him."
"There's still a learning curve for every one of us coaches, including Sergio. For us it's a growth process." "I will continue to do whatever he has left behind, build on it and see what we can make out of that," added Tan, who got married last year and is expecting a baby girl in November.
The SSA has been on the look-out for a replacement for American Lopez, since his shock resignation at the end of April.
The 1988 Olympic bronze medallist's official last day with SSA will be Aug 31, but he has been clearing his leave since Tuesday.
He arrived in Singapore from Rio late on Wednesday night, and leaves for the US this morning.
He starts his new job, as the Auburn University's associate head coach, on Monday.
Lopez has previously endorsed his assistant for his role, and the SSA is expected to make a formal announcement soon.
If appointed, Tan also aims to groom more swimmers to make the automatic "A" cut for the 2020 Olympics, as well as to bring a relay team to Tokyo.
Meanwhile, Lopez promises to continue to help out the Singapore swimming fraternity if he is needed.
"I am not leaving because I don't want any ties with Singapore swimming," he said. "If there is anything I can do to work with the coaches, and help them out in any way I can, I would be the first in line to talk."
- LIM SAY HENG