Cambodia 2023: Water Polo men earn redemption in emphatic fashion
By Philip Goh
Imagine being a member of the team that surrendered a 27-edition stranglehold on the regional water polo title in 2019. Experience the lingering anguish over the past four years, compounded by the frustration of missing out on the 2022 Hanoi Games due to the exclusion of the sport. Now, imagine the immense hard work and sacrifice dedicated to ensuring a successful do-over this time around.
Then, imagine all those emotions washing away with the blow of the final whistle in the final round-robin match, which Singapore won 22-14 in a high-scoring encounter.
Singapore's men's water polo team are back on the top perch as regional kings of the sport. Photo: SNOC/Danny Toh
On the final day of competition at the 32nd SEA Games, the men's water polo team reclaimed their throne as number one in Southeast Asia after winning all five pool matches, a mission they had penned on all their boards after a dispiriting 2019 campaign which saw them concede the gold that seemingly belonged to them, and come away with a bronze – not even a silver – after two wins, a draw and a 7-5 loss to Indonesia.
That was a blip considered unforgivable by the entire water polo community in Singapore and how the players hung their heads in regret after the Clark debacle.
The men's water polo have played with a fervent sense of determination to reclaim gold at the 32nd SEA Games. Photo: SNOC/Danny Toh
So there was no mistaking the determination the 2023 team brought with them; a team that also saw several veterans coming out of retirement to help with the cause.
The 2023 campaign began with a 12-7 win over Thailand, a team that has always threatened to break out. This was followed by a 14-1 hammering of Malaysia. Defending champion Indonesia was next, and with revenge on their minds, the Singapore men played their hardest to emerge 12-5 victors. Next was the Philippines, which they brushed aside 10-4. Pressure off their backs and only needing a draw to secure gold, the team placed nice and easy, resulting in the high-scoring win.
How important was it to win back this gold medal?
Captain Lee Kai Yang spoke for the team: “Winning back the gold has been on the back of our minds for the last four years. It was painful to lose our streak in 2019. But one consolation from the loss was that it allowed us to refocus and come back stronger.
“Winning with this squad, which consists of a mixture of youth and experience, will put us in good stead for future meets.”
And he admitted the mission to reclaim gold was years in the making.
Cayden Loh (white cap) at 18 years old is the youngest in the team. Photo: SportSG/Jeremy Lee
“Knowing that there was no water polo at the 2022 SEA Games, we organised the Inter Nations Cup to help us gauge our strengths and that of our opponents.
“Beating Indonesia to win the Inter Nations Cup last year gave us a psychological lift which we carried into this SEA Games. We also engaged some of our ex-players early and persuaded them to come out of retirement for this important mission.
As for the crucial wins that set the platform for this gold medal?
“The wins against defending champions Indonesia and Thailand, whom we lost to at the Asian Water Polo Championships in March were big wins for us and set us on the path to gold,” said Lee.
The men's team led by captain Lee Kai Yang (red cap) came fully prepared to give it their all in the pool. Photo: SNOC/Danny Toh
“We prepared well for the matches and knew they would put up a tough fight. Even though the score might suggest otherwise, Indonesia and Thailand are worthy opponents and if we had taken the matches lightly, the result could have been very different.”
Not wishing to single out any players, Lee credits the win to team effort.
“Everyone in the team sacrificed a lot. Everyone played an important role,” he said.
As for the feelings the team is experiencing on winning back the gold?
“Joy, redemption and satisfaction,” he said. “Some of us, including me, were in the 2019 team which lost and it stung. We never want it to happen again. So, this win means a lot to the team.
A moment to remember at the top of the podium. Photo: SNOC/Danny Toh
“This gold represents the product of the blood, sweat and tears the team has put in these past four years. Eugene (Teo) literally required four stitches to repair a torn membrane in his right eyeball. It is very fulfilling to have finally done the job and bring home the gold.”
And do we dare hope to start another streak lasting 27 editions of the Games?
“Nothing is a given in sport,” said Lee, “But I believe with this win and the exposure this team has gotten in the last few years, we will be in a strong position to dominate in the SEA Games again. But we hope to do it while also raising standards to be an Asian Games medal winner by 2030.”
Meanwhile, catch former captain Eugene Teo who came out of retirement for this SEA Games campaign, with his thoughts on today's final match (see below).
TeamSG's former skipper Eugene Teo's post-match reax after their 22-14 win over Cambodia. Photo Credit : SportSG/Andy Chua. Video Credit : Singapore Swimming Association and Sport Singapore
The women's team knew their task was to bridge the gap with regional leader Thailand. Photo: SportSG/Bryan Foo
The women's team, meanwhile, had to settled for silver after a 1 win 1 loss campaign, beating Indonesia 10-6 but losing to eventual gold medal winners Thailand 11-4.
Commenting on the campaign, captain Koh Ting Ting said: “We are glad to have secured silver but at the same time know we can do better and have to close the gap with the Thais.
A creditable silver for the women but more work needs to be done. Photo: SportSG/Bryan Foo
“We did not play at our best for this SEA Games. Having narrowly lost to Thailand (8-6) at the Asian Water Polo Championships earlier this year, we know that we can match up to them.
“We just have to learn from this experience, keep improving, and work towards overtaking them as the top team in the region.”
The 32nd SEA Games were held in Cambodia from 5 to 17 May 2023. For the latest Team Singapore coverage and news, follow Team Singapore on their social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok) or visit the official Team Singapore website.