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Schooling gets NS deferment to swim at 2016 Olympics

SINGAPORE — Talented swimmer Joseph Schooling secured a significant breakthrough for Singapore sports yesterday when he became the first athlete to be granted long-term deferment from National Service (NS), thus allowing him to pursue his dream of winning an Olympic medal at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Schooling gets NS deferment to swim at 2016 Olympics

Mr Schooling is ranked in the top three in the 100m and 200m fly with Americans in his age group. TODAY FILE PHOTO

SINGAPORE — Talented swimmer Joseph Schooling secured a significant breakthrough for Singapore sports yesterday when he became the first athlete to be granted long-term deferment from National Service (NS), thus allowing him to pursue his dream of winning an Olympic medal at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen announced in Parliament yesterday that the 18-year-old United States-based teenager will not have to enlist for NS next year after he graduates from Bolles School in Florida next May.

Instead, he can now continue training without any disruptions for the 2016 Summer Games. His deferment will end on Aug 31, 2016.

Dr Ng made the announcement in reply to a question from Jurong GRC Member of Parliament David Ong, who had asked if the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) would consider providing a more flexible approach to NS enlistment for top male athletes to enable them to excel at their sport while they are at their prime.

The Defence Minister first explained that deferment from full-time NS may be granted “in exceptional circumstances to individual sportsmen, who are assessed to be potential medal winners at international competitions like the Olympic Games and (able to) bring national pride to the country”.

However, these athletes must show why deferment is necessary for them to train full-time and compete successfully at international competitions. “Each case will be assessed individually in consultation with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY),” added Dr Ng.

In Mr Schooling’s case, Dr Ng revealed that his parents — May and Colin — had applied to MINDEF to defer their son’s NS earlier in the year.

The appeal had included detailed plans of Joseph’s training schedules and targets, which included competing successfully at the 2016 Olympics.

“The MCCY supported the appeal for deferment as they assessed that based on his previous achievements in international competitions, Mr Schooling had the potential to do well in the next Olympic Games,” said Dr Ng.

“As this appeal satisfied all the conditions for deferment of exceptional sportsman, the Armed Forces Council has decided to grant deferment to Mr Schooling ... in order for him to train and do well in the 2016 Olympic Games.”

Widely regarded as Singapore’s brightest swimming talent in recent years, Mr Schooling, who specialises in the 100m and 200m butterfly, is ranked in the top three in the two events with Americans in his age group.

He also holds five individual national records (50m, 100m and 200m fly, 200m freestyle and 200m individual medley) and was also the youngest semi-finalist in the 200m fly and 200m IM at the world championships in Barcelona this year.

Singapore has never won an Olympic medal in swimming.

It came close on two occasions — at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when Ang Peng Siong won the 100m freestyle B final to emerge overall ninth, and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when Tao Li finished fifth in the women’s 100m fly final.

But more than just a boost to Singapore’s Olympic medal hopes, Mr Schooling’s deferment represents a milestone and a small breakthrough in local sports with regard to NS, said many local sports officials.

Prior to yesterday’s announcement, no male athlete had been granted full deferment of NS. Several, however, have had their enlistment dates pushed back by a few months to accommodate their participation in regional Games.

The inability of top male athletes to train regularly during NS has also often been cited as a reason for their failure to excel in their sports after completing NS.

But despite the breakthrough, Dr Ng reiterated twice yesterday that MINDEF’s criteria for granting deferments is clear.

When Mr Ong asked if MINDEF can also look at establishing a deferment scheme for elite individual and team athletes and make known the eligibility criteria to allow them to plan their sporting careers properly, Dr Ng repeated that deferments can be granted “in exceptional circumstances to individual sportsmen, who are ... potential medal winners”.

When Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah asked if MINDEF will consider the Asian Games as a major tournament for an athlete’s possible deferment, he replied: “They must be sufficiently high-level and are exceptional”.

The Schooling family were overjoyed and relieved when they heard the news yesterday.

Said Mrs May Schooling: “We have been in discussions with MINDEF in this appeal since as long as two years ago, and our efforts have finally come to fruition. We were always worrying about how NS will affect Joseph’s swimming performance while he is at his prime and peaking.”

She added that they can now plan for her son’s university education in the US with peace of mind.

“Almost every US university is interested in Joseph (but) we couldn’t commit to anything for his future because of NS,” she said.

Mr Schooling, who told TODAY last weekend that he had been nervous about the status of his deferment application, said yesterday: “I hope to set a trend for promising athletes in Singapore.”

Singapore Swimming Association President Jeffrey Leow also hailed MINDEF’s decision as one that would “inspire other swimmers and athletes from different sports to reach world-class achievements”.

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