National swimmer Quah Zheng Wen believes training and competing in the US could help him qualify for an Olympic final for the first time.
The 20-year-old leaves Thursday (12 January) to study biology and chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.
After a report in the Straits Times on Tuesday broke the news of his decision to go to Berkeley, Quah met the media to explain the reason for his decision at a press conference on Wednesday. This is the first time that Quah was addressing the media since his participation at the Rio 2016 Olympics in August.
UC Berkeley’s swim team is coached by David Durden, an assistant coach for the US Olympic team and the American Swim Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year for 2016. Six of Durden’s charges won 11 medals in Rio, including eight gold medals and an individual world record clocked by Ryan Murphy.
Regarded by both Joseph Schooling and former Singapore swimming coach Sergio Lopez as an Olympic medal prospect at Tokyo 2020, Quah qualified for the 100m and 200m butterfly semi-finals in Rio.
Quah said that his deferment from national service was a big factor that influenced his decision to head for the US. Both he and Schooling were granted deferment by the Ministry of Defence until after Tokyo 2020.
“If I didn’t get the deferment, there would have been no option (to go overseas). The deferment was the stamp of the possibility to go away and study abroad and experience college,” said Quah. “It’s pretty hard to maintain where you’re at in swimming as well as balance your army life. Hats off to those who have done it and are still swimming,” he said.
Quah was already considering training in the US before the issue of his NS deferment came up. He had considered Stanford – the school picked by five-time gold medallist Katie Ledecky – but did not apply in the end because Stanford does not have a January intake.
He also said that the decision to train overseas was not influenced by Joseph Schooling’s gold medal performance in Rio.
“I was doing pretty well in Singapore. I would have been pretty happy to stay. I actually considered going to the States to study even before Joe’s performance but due to some circumstances it was difficult at that time. Going to the States now is definitely a personal decision and it’s not based on things that have happened,” he explained.
Elaborating on his choice of UC Berkeley, he said, “One of the huge reasons was the vibe of the team. I wanted to be part of a team that was really dynamic and quick. The men’s and women’s team don’t train together – it allows the coaches to really focus. It sounded pretty amazing.”
The school is also giving him a partial scholarship.
Quah was also quick to explain that his decision was not because training standards in Singapore are lacking, saying that he wanted more opportunities to race.
“One of the huge benefits of college swimming is the amount of racing they do… just being able to get up and race as and when is needed is a huge skill to have and it will definitely help you on the bigger stage in the end,” he said.
NCAA eligibility still pending
Quah’s application to compete under UC Berkeley is pending approval from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). He expects the NCAA to respond “pretty soon”.
He explained, “I’ve been swimming in a bunch of meets training for the Olympics. I swam at certain professional meets like the FINA World Cup, and I think there’s a certain conflict of ruling with NCAA… there’s a lot of little grey areas we’re trying to figure out with them.”
Quah had received prize money after winning medals at previous FINA World Cup meets, and is also a brand ambassador for Liberty Insurance. Under NCAA rules, athletes cannot receive prize money and endorsements.
Despite the uncertainty of his NCAA eligibility, Quah believes that training in the US is the best option for him to swim at a high level.
In the worst case scenario, Quah said he will look at training as a professional while studying in the US.
Quah confirmed that he will compete at the FINA World Championships in Budapest in July and at the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Kuala Lumpur in August.
“I’ll definitely still be competing at these events. This isn’t just about me going away to chase my own dreams. I still want to be here for Singapore and just be able to fly the flag high,” he said.
He has also set some goals for the year, starting with the World Championships.
“At the World Championships this year, I’m definitely hoping to be in the finals, (and) to make the NCAA (championships) and see how I match up again some of the best college swimmers in the world.”
Quah’s older sister, Ting Wen, told Yahoo Singapore that the family has let him decide what is best for his swimming career. Ting Wen, who is very close to her brother, admitted that her biggest concern for him going overseas was that “I’m not there with him.”
Nonetheless, she said that the overseas experience would be good for her brother.
“No matter how old he is, I will always worry for him. If he’s by himself he will learn to be more responsible… Since he’s there by himself, it would force him to learn quickly how to take care of himself,” she said.