There’s no shortcut to the top – an athlete puts in tens of thousands of hours to reach the pinnacle of the sport, with no guarantee of scaling the summit. Thus, by the time Singapore swimming legend Ang Peng Siong became the world’s fastest swimmer in 1982, the Farrer Park Swimming Complex (FPSC) had already become a second home.
“This is pretty much my kampung,” says the 52-year-old swimmer-turned-national coach, who raised his family in the same neighbourhood. “My youngest brother and I would sneak into the pump room, which was out of bounds.”
They knew all the playing areas, Ang having begun training at five years of age under his late father, Ang Teck Bee, then the pool warden of FPSC. At its opening in 1957, the pool was one of only four in Singapore, resulting in a rowdy queue that lined its perimeter daily.
“People were fighting to get in. There were people from the secret societies, with tattoos, who wanted to jump the queue,” says Ang. To keep the crowd in order, his father took up judo, a move which eventually saw him represent Singapore at the Olympic Games, and later growing the local judo scene. It was a testament to his passion for sports, and his fortitude inspired his son to push himself harder.
As the young Ang grew in ability, so too did the prominence of the sporting hub to which the pool belonged, the Farrer Park Athletic Centre (FPAC). “I would go so far as to say that this is the birthplace of Singapore sports. There was such a vibrancy to be found here – you would meet top officials and coaches, world-class sportspeople like C. Kunalan and Choo Seng Quee. The open spaces were always filled with people kicking a ball or playing cricket.”
The complex’s prominence diminished, with the completion of the National and Jalan Besar stadiums in the 1970s. When a fire razed one of its administrative buildings in 1985, it went into further decline, until the Government shuttered it in 2003.
But Ang could not bear to let go of such a significant part of his life. He tendered for the premises and drew up plans to run an eponymous swim school there.
“My wife thought I was crazy,” says Ang of the steep cost. “But she knew how much the pool meant to me. When we first took over, it was in shambles… there was no water and the tiles were broken. It took two years to get the place operational.”
“My wife thought I was crazy. But she knew how much the pool meant to me.”
Ang Peng Siong
Of the rest of the FPAC, only a few tennis courts remain. The once-teeming Farrer Park Stadium has been bulldozed, and in its place stands Farrer Park Primary School. Ang’s swim school makes up most of the activity in the area. When we were there, a dozen or so students were wrapping up their swim class and preparing to leave at 9am. It’s the school holidays, so that’s considered late. “On school days, they begin swimming at 5am and end at 7am,” a proud Ang says.
Nine years in, Ang is sketchy about whether he’s breaking even. After all, the monthly cost of maintaining the pool is reported to be around $20,000. But it would be missing the point to weigh the gain here in dollars and cents.
“We take it a day at a time. I’m doing it for the passion of the sport, the athletes, and the preservation of a culture. This was once the place to be for sporting, it would be nice – and important – to have a landmark to identify it.”
The national great finds owning his own pool affords him full flexibility in designing his courses – see the establishment.