‘Dream Come True’ A Cut Pushes Singapore’s Jonathan Tan in Busy 2023
The heartbreak didn’t keep Jonathan Tan out of the water for long in 2021.
Tan, then 19, touched the wall at the Singapore National Swimming Championships in the spring of 2021 with a time of 22.12 seconds in the men’s 50 freestyle. It lowered his national record in the event, but still came up a tenth of a second shy of the qualification standard for the Tokyo Olympics.
In short order, Tan turned the disappointment into fuel.
“It hurt, to be that close,” Tan told Swimming World last week. “But I thought of it in a way that the only way was up. There’s always another chance to try again. For me, I used it as a motivation that I wouldn’t want to feel like that again. I threw myself into training again very quickly and I got faster the last two years.”
Two years later, Tan has his ticket to the Paris Games booked, thanks to a time of 21.91 at the Southeast Asian Games in the spring that hit the Olympic A cut. It was the first installment in a busy year for the sprinter, which includes three major competitions and a journey across the Pacific to enroll in Stanford.
Tan ranks 13th in the world in the 50 free in 2023. His trip to Cambodia for the SEA Games yielded five medals, with the 50/100 free double plus two relays golds and a silver. His time in the 100 free, 48.80, is within a half-second of the Olympic A cut.
He hopes his Olympic “dream come true” is a jumping off point for a busy summer, with Tan to represent Singapore at the World Championships, then the Asian Games in the fall in Hangzhou, China.
“I think it definitely helps me mentally,” Tan said. “It takes off a little of the stress and pressure. Training-wise, I think everything still remains the same. I’m still training hard, still preparing the same.”
The College Try
Tan is following familiar footsteps by opting to swim in college in the United States. Many of Singapore’s top swimmers of the last decade – among them Joseph Schooling (Texas; about him, more later) and the Quah siblings (Quah Ting Wen at UCLA, Quah Zheng Wen at Cal and Quah Jing Wen at Texas A&M) – have tested themselves in NCAA competition. Tan had plenty of advice to rely on in making the leap, which he’s delayed to finish his compulsory national service.
That wait has made him eager to join the Cardinal this fall, though his arrival won’t come until after the Asian Games.
“One of the reasons why I decided to go to the U.S. to further my studies and swim is the college environment that the NCAA provides,” Tan said. “There’s a balance between academics and sports where the schools will support you all the way and the good balance they provide and the overseas experience in the States and the independence. I do look forward to swimming against all those international swimmers in the NCAAs.”
Tan’s early Olympic cut puts him at the forefront of the program in a way that Schooling long has been. The 2016 Olympic champion in the 100 butterfly has cut back his international program in recent years, including for some non-swimming reasons, and he’s openly hinted at retirement, having just turned 28. He passed on the SEA Games feeling that he wasn’t at a level where he could perform to his expectations.
Schooling’s Olympic gold was a watershed moment for the national program and the nation’s first gold in any sport. It happened when Tan was 14 and in his first year of the national team, returning to his swim club to watch the events in Rio after a practice with his team.
“Seeing him win the gold medal, it just inspired us and brought the whole team to a whole new level that we can believe it’s possible for one of us to attain an Olympic medal,” Tan said.
While Tan laughed at the insinuation that he’s developing into a leader on par with Schooling, there is a changing of the guard underway in Singaporean swimming. Sans Schooling, Singapore dominated the SEA Games, with 22 of a possible 40 gold medals and 47 total medals. With Quah Zheng Wen, the nation’s leading backstroker, and American-born Nick Mahabir, now the country’s record-holder in the 50 and 100 breaststroke, Tan anchored a foursome that reset the 400 medley relay national record in 3:37.45. Teong Tzen Wei, still improving at age 25, swam fly. They also brushed within three-quarters of a second of the 400 free relay mark that has stood since Worlds in 2019.
Positioning the Singaporean relays to get to Paris is one of Tan’s main goals this summer. And while he defers to the team’s elder statesmen in the verbal leadership department, he describes his hopes for the consequences of his swims in terms that sound a lot like how he once regarded Schooling’s accomplishments.
“I’m not so sure I would call myself a leader, but I hope that me qualifying for the Olympics will inspire the generation after me and the kids after me that it is possible to qualify for the Olympics and do well on the international level,” he said. “… I think we are moving in the right direction as a team.”