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The sports scientists behind Schooling and Quah’s drive for excellence

BUDAPEST — Ms Sonya Porter, the technical director of the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA), laughed as she counted the number of Team Singapore support staff in Budapest for the Fina World Championships.

The sports scientists behind Schooling and Quah’s drive for excellence

The Singapore swimmers and their support staff. (From left) Quah Zheng Wen, biomechanist Ryan Hodierne, Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) technical director Sonya Porter, Joseph Schooling, trainer Peter Soon, nutritionist Richard Swinbourne and psychologist Tracy Veivers. Photo: SSA

BUDAPEST — Ms Sonya Porter, the technical director of the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA), laughed as she counted the number of Team Singapore support staff in Budapest for the Fina World Championships.

“Five,” she told TODAY at the Duna Arena. “We have one of the biggest entourages for the smallest group of athletes here.”

Their staff-to-athlete ratio may have invited some cheeky jibes from rival teams, but it is a winning combination that national swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen will be banking on in their hunt for glory and personal milestones in Budapest.

From monitoring of sleep patterns and blood lactate tests, to video analysis of race starts and techniques, the team comprising Ms Porter, biomechanist Ryan Hodierne, nutritionist Richard Swinbourne, psychologist Tracy Veivers and sports trainer Peter Soon, and accompanied by media manager Mohamed Hafidz Ja’afar, have been assembled to keep Schooling and Quah finely tuned and ready to go on the world’s biggest swimming stage.

Described by Olympic champion Schooling as “the best I have seen in biomechanics”, Mr Hodierne is in Budapest for his final assignment with the swimmers before he heads to his new job at the New South Wales Institute of Sport.

After helping Schooling win the 100m butterfly gold at the Rio Olympics, the 33-year-old South African — and his teammates — have an even bigger assignment this week.

Schooling came to Budapest aiming to win gold medals in the 50m and 100m butterfly, and also break Michael Phelps’ 100m fly world record of 49.82sec. He finished fifth in the 50m fly final this morning (Singapore time). On the other hand, Quah has targeted a top-eight finish in at least one of his five events.

“He’s been meeting really good times, he’s honestly in pretty impressive form at the moment,” said Mr Hodierne of Schooling. “He’s definitely stronger and more confident than ever. He’s gotten even stronger in the gym and he’s lifting more (weights).

“He’s starting to feel a connection to his stroke. He’s going farther per stroke and he’s more powerful now.”

Ahead of the Rio Olympics, Mr Hodierne, who had previously worked with three-time world champion Chad le Clos, had meticulously studied and compared Schooling’s performances with his competitors’, including Phelps. He told TODAY previously that Schooling was consistently the fastest in the first half of his race, and had the added advantage of a strong kick, compared with his bigger and taller opponents. He also possessed an unconventional stroke and kick rhythm for his butterfly.

Mr Hodierne is convinced that Schooling’s “unorthodox” abilities will keep him on top of his game. “He is very unorthodox and different from everyone ... athletes at the highest level don’t conform to norms. It took a while to understand what made him fast,” he said.

“Joseph became the fastest at the Olympics and won the gold ... It was a case of me not trying to understand what he could do better, but instead, understanding what he was doing right ... where are the areas to continue to improve on and where are the critical areas to touch up on.

“The way he goes about each training session, he is very acutely aware of what’s working or not. He’s amazing that way, and he’s a special talent.”

Ms Porter added: “All swimmers at this level have an impeccable feel of the water — it’s whether they are able to push through the little things and have that confidence.

“Joseph looks at stats with Ryan on where he’s at a deficit, where he can find the extra tenths, hundredths of a second, because he has parts of the race where he’s best in the world at what he’s doing, and then he has some parts where he is terrible at executing.”

As the race heats up for Schooling’s pet event — the 100m fly — Mr Hodierne believes that the Singaporean can go under 50sec in what will be a new personal best after his Olympic record time of 50.39sec. It will also be a first for any swimmer this season.

American Caeleb Dressel, Schooling’s closest rival, posted the fastest time this year when he clocked 50.87sec at the United States Nationals last month. Schooling’s 50.96sec swim at the Speedo Southern Zone Long Course Sectional Championships in early July is the next fastest.

Said Mr Hodierne: “It’s come down to speed maintenance ... he knows where the points are to maintain the speed that he’s so good at generating. He’s the best in the world at generating speed, and (it’s about) ‘how do we maintain that throughout the pool?’.

“The world record’s on the cards — I’ve been in discussion as well, (as to) when we want that record broken. It can be the heats, semi-finals, it can be the final. I’ve had a conversation with Eddie Reese (University of Texas head coach) and Joseph as well, it’s certainly on our minds, but it’s not the be-all and end-all at this point. We focus on the task at hand, assert our dominance.

“I’m convinced he can break 50sec. If he does that, I’ll feel even more confident of him breaking the world record that in the lead-up to Tokyo 2020 Olympics. That’s ideally where I’d like it to play out.”

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