SEA Games: Singapore's five greatest athletes at the Games

City-state has produced prolific medal winners who swept past all challengers during their heydays

(From left): Patricia Chan, Joscelin Yeo, Joseph Schooling, James Wong and Wong Shoon Keat. (PHOTO: Getty Images, Reuters)
(From left): Patricia Chan, Joscelin Yeo, Joseph Schooling, James Wong and Wong Shoon Keat. (PHOTO: Getty Images, Reuters)

SINGAPORE — Over its 64 years of participation at the SEA Games, Singapore has seen its fair share of outstanding athletes.

While the city-state may not have dominated the biennial event in terms of overall medal tally, it has nonetheless produced prolific medal winners who swept past all challengers during their heydays and piled on gold medals after gold medals.

Here are five of the greatest Singapore athletes at the SEA Games:

Patricia Chan (1965 to 1973, 39 golds)

Singapore's first Swim Queen. The original Golden Girl. Patricia Chan was so dominant in the pool that her SEA Games participation reads: took part in 39 events, won gold in 39 events. A perfect record that may never be repeated.

Chan's dominance also came just as Singapore had become an independent nation in 1965, and she became an instant sporting icon for the nascent nation with her SEA Games exploits.

Chan's peak came at the 1967 and 1969 Games, where she won 10 golds in each edition. Fittingly, she drew the curtains on her swimming career in 1973, when Singapore hosted the Games for the first time. And of course, she ended with another golden harvest - six golds at the Toa Payoh Aquatic Centre.

Joscelin Yeo (1991 to 2005, 40 golds, 15 silvers, 7 bronzes)

There have been many female swimmers who have taken over the Swim Queen mantle since Chan retired in 1973: Junie Sng in the 1970s, Tao Li in the 2000s and Quah Ting Wen in the 2010s.

But none had the all-around versatility of Joscelin Yeo, who burst onto the swim scene in 1991 already adept in all of the four swim strokes. That began a glorious eight-Games run in which she piled up the medals - most of them golds - at an unprecedented rate.

By the time she announced her retirement in 2005, she had won more gold medals than Chan (40 to 39), and had earned more medals than any SEA Games athlete - 62 in all. As swimmers become more and more specialised in their chosen swim stroke, it is difficult to see Yeo's records being broken.

Joseph Schooling (2011 to now, 29 golds, 3 silvers, 2 bronzes)

While Singapore's perennial dominance in swimming has produced many Swim Queens, Swim Kings are harder to come by, with the men's field traditionally more competitive.

Joseph Schooling, however, is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Most Singaporeans will remember him as the nation's first and only Olympic gold medallist, thanks to his monumental 100m butterfly triumph in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, but he has also been nearly untouchable at the SEA Games with 34 medals won over six editions.

On and off the pool, Schooling exemplifies the best traits of a great athlete: fiercely competitive, yet gracious and mature. His place in the Singapore sporting pantheon is permanently secure.

James Wong (1987 to 2013, 10 golds, 4 silvers, 2 bronzes)

His chosen sport was discus, and from 1993 to 2011, James Wong showed up, threw his discus and collected gold. Nine SEA Games, nine golds, with a hammer throw gold added in 1995 just because he could.

Wong's metronomic excellence in those 18 years came amid a 26-year, 14-Games spell in which he failed to win a medal in only two editions (1991 and 2013). Discus may not be a widely-participated sport around Southeast Asia, but he nonetheless showed the immense dedication to his sport in his long and illustrious career.

For the longevity of his brilliance, Wong is rightfully recognised as one of Singapore's greatest sportsmen.

Wong Shoon Keat (1979 to 1985, 1 gold, 3 bronzes)

Sometimes, one SEA Games gold is enough for greatness. While badminton is a popular sport in Singapore, the city-state struggles to win gold medals at the SEA Games as neighbouring nations Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are powerhouses of the sport and have wide bases of talents to consistently produce champions.

It was against these odds that Wong Shoon Keat faced at the 1983 SEA Games, which was held for the second time in Singapore. While he was a four-time national champion, few fancied him to become the men's singles champion against a deep and loaded field.

Yet Wong lifted an entire nation with his finest-ever performance. He stunned then-world champion Icuk Sugiarto of Indonesia during his run into the final, before defeating 1979 champion Hastomo Arbi in the final to clinch Singapore's first badminton gold medal. Now, 40 years on, he is still the only Singapore men's shuttler to win gold at the SEA Games.

Special mention: men's water polo team (1965 to 2017, 27 golds, 1 bronze)

Through generations of players, the Singapore water polo team has kept winning the men's team gold at the SEA Games - 27 times in 27 editions since the sport was introduced in 1965 - until the streak was finally broken at the 2019 Games. Like Joscelin Yeo’s medal record, this is a feat of sustained excellence that is unlikely to be replicated by any team again.

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