SINGAPORE, Sept 12 — He may be the first Singaporean to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games next year, even the first Singaporean diver to ever qualify for the Olympics, but glory can wait.
National diver Jonathan Chan, 22, has a bigger immediate concern: Getting gold for his Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT), which is coming up in about two weeks.
It would be “a bit paiseh (embarrassing) if national athlete doesn’t get gold”, he quipped in an interview with TODAY on Tuesday. He lists push-ups as his weakest station; in 2016 when he was doing National Service in the army, he almost failed to get gold.
Chan, a second-year architecture major at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), qualified for the Olympics after winning the men’s 10m platform final at the Asian Diving Cup in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday.
He beat China’s Wang Zewei (393.45 points) and North Korea’s Ri Kwon Hyok (347.25) to claim the gold medal at the Bukit Jalil National Aquatic Centre in Malaysia, with a total score of 407.90.
Chan said that the qualification — granted only to the winner of the continental competition — came as a total surprise.
“The first (thought) was more like, this is unreal,” Chan said. “Going into the competition, I was not expecting this. It was more for the experience.
“So I didn’t know what to think. I think everyone else was happier for me.”
Instead of celebrating, he spent the rest of the day drinking bubble tea and watching American sitcom Brooklyn 99 on Netflix while replying to a host of congratulatory messages.
In the week that follows, Chan plans to spend less time on diving and more with his friends. He also plans to “train a little bit” for his IPPT.
During the interview, Chan did not come across as your archetypal high-performance athlete. He describes his diet, for instance, as “mostly healthy with the occasional bubble tea and chips”.
“Going with the flow” has always been his mantra, admitting that his previous coaches’ aspirations for him have largely flown over his head.
“I frustrated many coaches,” he said. “Many of them end up saying things like, ‘You don’t have goals, you don’t have dreams’, and I was, like, ‘Okay’ ”
But despite the perceived lack of ambition, he has had some successes: Chan has two silver and three bronze medals from the South-east Asian (SEA) Games in 2015 and 2017, having also represented the nation at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China.
The Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) said that Chan’s qualification is the “culmination of years of hard work that has been put in by the athlete, coaches, the high-performance team in the SSA as well as the supporting team from Singapore Sports Institute”.
William Lee, the association’s vice-president for diving, said: “We have no doubt Jonathan’s achievement will spur all our divers to dare to dream.”
He used to be a gymnast
Chan used to be a gymnast. His first foray into diving was when he followed his older sister Kimberly, a former national diver, to a tryout for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games team.
Then just 13, he was too young to make the cut but he went along to get a taste of the sport.
It wasn’t too long before he started representing the nation — he competed in the Asian Youth Games in 2013 and the 2014 YOG in Nanjing.
Of current national diving coach Li Peng, Chan said: “I would say he’s very understanding towards our school (life) and everything.”
Li was previously a national champion in China and used to coach the Chinese women’s national team and Britain’s national team, mentoring the likes of Olympic gold medallist Li Na (China) and three-time world champion Tom Daley.
Chan added: “If I’m (busy at school) he would say, ‘Never mind, don’t come.’ He understands the Singapore system.”
During the school term, Chan barely has time to go out with friends because the weekends are reserved for catching up on school work. He also tries to sleep by midnight daily.
He said that his parents are supportive of his endeavour and had never pressured him to excel.
He recalled once when he consulted his mother as he was having thoughts of quitting. It was during 2017 — his second year in the army — when he was involved in several outfield missions which coincided with back-to-back competitions, one of which was overseas.
“It’s mentally draining because if you don’t train for a while and you get back in, it’s quite scary relearning. It took its toll on me and I was super tired.”
Chan spoke to his mother and she told him to “just sit on it and see if I really wanted to stop”.
“But after a few days, the intense feeling passed so I continued,” he said. “At that time, they (his parents) would be okay (if I quit).”
No concrete plans for the future
As for the future, he said that he has no concrete plans.
Rather than think about what he aims to achieve at the Olympic Games itself, Chan said that when the school year starts next Monday, his main focus will be “maintaining the standard while juggling school”.
In the long term, he would probably not consider diving as a career. “The Singapore mindset is drilled into me, so I don’t see sports as a career,” he said. “I’ll probably see how after I graduate.”
And his advice for any aspiring divers who might aim to one day be like him?
“I would say that it’s not going to be easy. There’s definitely going to be a lot of injuries and setbacks that you have to deal with.
“But when you make it, you will feel like it’s all worth it, and it will feel surreal.” — TODAY