Gold or Nothing: Polo Girls Seek Revenge Against the Thais

Benjamin Lim

Gina Koh, 27, captain of the women’s water polo team, tells me why exactly the sport is so fun to watch: “Things happen so quickly that the untrained eye would probably miss the dirty grabbing, the quick shoves and turns, the cap pulling … and would probably only see the exclusions, the goals, and the turnovers.”

Possession time is short, she explains, so the pace of the game will keep you on your feet. For her at least, it’s all about the sick outside shots and fantastic saves by the goalkeepers.

“Think netball but with no rules of where you can or cannot go,” she says, “Think rugby but with the added challenge of staying afloat. Think swimming but with the added incentive of reaching the other end as fast as you can so you can leave the defence in the wake of your bubbles. Think of intercepting the ball for a quick break like in basketball, think of dribbling the ball by swimming it down in front of you, with your head up to see the field. Now think about doing all this in under 30 seconds.”

Unlike Singapore’s men’s water polo team, which has been long revered as a dominant force in Southeast Asia, the spotlight rarely shines on their female counterparts.

Since their first win in 1965, the men’s team has been on a 26-SEA Games gold medal streak, making them one of the nation’s most successful sports teams. In contrast, the women’s team has only had two opportunities so far to display their athletic prowess at the region’s premier biennial sporting event, albeit with reasonable success.

Despite having won gold in Indonesia in 2011—when the women’s event debuted—they failed to defend their title on home soil in 2015, losing to Thailand in the finals by a single goal. Unfortunately, in 2013 when the games took place in Myanmar, the sport was not offered.

“In some sense, we are in the shadow of the men’s team,” says Gina, who will be heading to Kuala Lumpur this month as the SEA Games enters its 29th edition.

“Women’s water polo is not as popular as a national sport compared to the men’s game. Most of the clubs and teams comprise boys who start really young at the age of six or seven. You’ll probably find only two or three girls at most in a mixed team.

With the natural tendency of Singaporeans to support the more popular sports (for example swimming, which now boasts an Olympic champion),  Gina admits it is hard to simply cater to the public in order to gain popularity. Having made only two SEA Games appearances, limited exposure poses an obstacle to the team’s aims of increasing interest and attracting talent to a sport that is still seen as a male-dominated one.

Lee Sai Meng, the team's coach, took the reins in March this year.

Gina, Captain of the team.

It’s no secret that the aggressive nature of the sport frightens away most girls. Gina shares, “It’s true that it’s at times a rough sport, with rough being a severe understatement. But what happens in the pool stays in the pool.”

At the same time, she observes that generally speaking, girls tend to be more considerate of their physical appearances. Hence, it’s only natural that many teenagers would refrain from getting into a sport that would make them “bigger”, preferring instead to preserve a typically slim and feminine appearance.

For those who do show interest in junior college, many end up prioritising their university lives, and gradually stop training before eventually giving up the sport. Even those who stick to the sport require a lot of training in order to take on regional competitions.

As such, the team, together with the Singapore Swimming Association, is taking steps to change the mindsets of Singaporeans by incorporating more girls in training at a younger age. Hopefully, this will bring the sport out of obscurity, building a same level of popularity to rival that of the men’s team.  

“You need to be tough to take the beatings in the pool. Because of the sport’s roughness and strength required, you need girls of a certain aggressiveness and that’s an [unorthodox] way of what a girl should be like,” says Gina, who joined the national squad after the 2011 SEA Games.

She adds: “When I talk to my other girl friends about the sport, they will ask questions like “Is there a lot of pulling and kicking?” “Is it very rough?” There are common questions that will arise.”

In contrast, her male friends tend to be more curious, often commenting that it’s cool that she plays water polo, sometimes even wanting to find out more.

It has been six years since the team has won gold.

Before our interview back in June at Toa Payoh Swimming Complex, Gina had already struck me as the distant and reserved sort. Having reached early, she picked a bench, plugged her earphones in, and settled in for a nap even as the rest of her teammates arrived one by one, many of them in a chirpy mood.

Still maintaining a relatively controlled demeanour during the photoshoot, Gina’s exuberance only surfaced when we finally had a chance to speak face to face. Describing her team’s passion for a sport that some still associate with tomboys and rowdy girls, her gentle yet cheerful voice seemed to struggle against her more intimidating qualities. Yet while her broad shoulders might have implied aggression, her face exuded nothing but pride.

When we discuss Thailand, their fiercest competitors, her smile fades a little. Having lost to them in the 2015 SEA Games, they had suffered yet another defeat at their hands during the 10th Asian Swimming Championships in Japan, losing 6-14.

“We thought we would win in 2015, so the loss was a huge lesson for the team. It pushed us to train harder and also made us realise that we should not be expecting a win despite how much effort we think we’ve put in,” she tells me.

Adding that the Thais have an edge over her team in that they have been training full-time every day as part of a university team, she explains that they are a team of full-time working adults and students. Much like many other Singaporean athletes, they have to find ways to fit a six-to-eight-times-a-week training regimen into their busy schedules.

So far, the women’s water polo team has undergone three coach changes. One took place before the 2015 SEA Games, and one after it. When these changes failed to deliver improvements, threatening to throw the team’s future into disarray, current coach Lee Sai Meng assumed the reins in March this year.

His guidance and expertise has already had a positive impact, says Gina, pointing out that the ship has since steadied.

“The change is definitely for the better because Sai Meng has a lot of experience from guiding the men’s team prior. He focuses a lot on improving our individual skills and roles, and then gelling the team play together so each of us knows what we are supposed to do during the match.”

It has been six years since the team has won gold, and bringing home gold would, to some extent, vindicate their efforts.

“Winning gold definitely brings some popularity and attention to the sport, and that is an advantage for us trying to pull in a new pool of talent. But it isn’t the basis of our pressure. We want to win the gold medal really because we want to win back the recognition as the women’s water polo team to beat in Southeast Asia, to build up the same reputation as the men’s team.”

“Sustaining the gold medal is a dream of ours. So our main focus is on beating Thailand, and then we can talk about how our winning streak can go on.”