SINGAPORE: Toa Payoh Sports Complex, the iconic venue built for the 1973 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, officially closed its doors to the public on Oct 31 to make way for a new Regional Sports Centre as part of the Toa Payoh Integrated Development project.

This is a venue where Singapore witnessed swimming legends such as Ang Peng Siong competing in his final Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in 1993, and they also cheered on former national swimmer Joscelin Yeo, who bagged seven gold medals and a silver medal at the same competition that year. It was before Singapore gave birth to Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling and other newer swimming generations, such as the Quah siblings and the latest Asian Games silver medalist, Teong Tzen Wei.

Former Singapore national swimmers Oon Jin Teik and Mark Chay reminisced about their fond memories at the Toa Payoh Swimming Complex in an interview with The Independent Singapore, sharing stories of their younger days spent training and competing in the pools.

Oon, a former Singapore national swimmer who competed at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and served as the Singapore Sports Council’s CEO from 2004 to 2010, won eight medals at the SEA Games, including three golds and a bronze when Singapore hosted it in 1993. He went on to win two more gold medals each in the 1985 and 1987 SEA Games.

“I used to train under coach Kee Soon Bee when I was under PAYSC (People’s Association Youth Swimming Club). The training was all here (Toa Payoh), and he will start at 5.30am in the morning. We were all expected to arrive and be prepared by 5.15am. I still remember we turned on all the lights and the residents from the nearby HDB flats would sometimes complain because the coaches used the loudhailer,” chuckled Oon, who also shared about competing in the 1983 SEA Games at the Toa Payoh Sports Complex.

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“He (coach Kee) wears sunglasses at 5 plus in the morning and also holds a stick which is about seven feet long. He used it to correct our strokes and nudged you in the water. Those were the days when I woke up about 4am, and left the house.”

“Competition wise, the 1983 SEA Games were very memorable. That time when it was held here, the stands were fully packed with our Singapore supporters, it was incredible. That SEA Games we had lots of wonderful achievements,” added Oon who won the bronze medal at the 1986 Asian games in the 4 x 200m Freestyle (7:56.27) with his brother Oon Jin Gee and teammates David Lim, and Tay Khoon Hean.

Toa Payoh Sports Complex (Photo credit: Khalis Rifhan)

Singapore’s aquatics athletes won 15 gold, 12 silver, and 7 bronze medals at the 1983 SEA Games, while the men’s water polo team continued their dominance by winning their tenth consecutive gold medal.

When Singapore hosted the SEA Games again in 1993, it was a source of inspiration for the current Singapore Aquatics’ president Chay. He was mesmerised by Yeo’s medal-winning performance in the pool, and it gave Chay the confidence he needed as a young swimmer to grow and achieve his goals in the sport. The sight of Yeo’s undeniable skill and dedication fueled Chay’s passion for swimming.

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“This is also the place where in 93, I was about 10 or 11 years old and I was inspired by the batch of then-national swimmers. Who could forget Joscelin Yeo dominating the pool that time? She won nine gold medals. It was also Uncle Ang’s (Peng Siong) final race here. That year really inspired a generation of new swimmers. It motivates me as a young athlete, during my development phase, competing here at Toa Payoh,” added Chay who made his Olympic Games debut in 2000 at Sydney in the 200m freestyle event.

Chay won his first SEA Games medal in 1999, two silvers and two bronze medals. In the 2005 SEA Games, he was also part of the team with Gary Tan, Bryan Tay, and Marcus Cheah that won the gold medal in the 4 x 200m freestyle race and set a new Games record with a time of 7:35:85s. In 2005, Chay also won the gold medal in the 4 x 100m and a silver in the 100m backstroke.

Digging deep into his past recollection of the Toa Payoh Sports Complex and the swimming pools, Chay remembers the time when he witnessed the coming up of a new generation of swimmers. It was a remarkable experience that showcased their unwavering dedication and determination to excel in the sport. Moreover, Chay fondly recalls how certain competitions unite friends and foster a sense of camaraderie as they come together to wholeheartedly support their peers in the pool.

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“This is where I trained under our first centre of excellence around the 2005 period, with the other national swimmers. Back then, we had a young Quah Ting Wen, and Joseph Schooling. They started here, and I was already like out of the university. I had some fond memories of this place. It is mostly the competitions such as the school nationals as that is usually the only time where we would get a large crowd coming here. The stands are full, and your schoolmates would be cheering for you,” mentioned Chay.

The Singapore Aquatics president added that now, as an administrator, he is pleased to see the Toa Payoh Sports Complex making way for a more high-tech, high-performance integrated project, which no doubt will be a new landmark for the aquatics family and others in the sporting fraternity.

The new development is expected to be completed by 2030 and comes under the Sports Facilities Master Plan, a key initiative of the national sports blueprint – Vision 2030. The 12-hectare Toa Payoh Integrated Development will be home to a new Polyclinic, Library, and a Regional Town Park. The proposed new ActiveSg Sports Centre will include badminton courts, an aquatic centre, indoor sports halls, sheltered courts for tennis, futsal and netball, fitness studios, a gymnasium, and a new football stadium.