05 March 18 The Straits Times by LIM SAY HENG
The stage is set for a tantalising showdown between Singapore's top two swimmers in the men's 200-yard butterfly at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Swimming and Diving Championships later this month.
In the yellow and blue corner, University of California, Berkeley sophomore Quah Zheng Wen issued a strong statement of intent when he clocked 1min 40.24sec to win the event on the last day of the Pac-12 Swimming and Diving Championships in Washington on Saturday (yesterday morning, Singapore time).
It was the 21-year-old's season best, and places him second among the US collegiate swimmers, behind only Indiana University-Bloomington's Vinicius Lanza (1:39.95).
"I haven't been doing short-course yards for a very long time, but the turns are definitely one of my strong suits," the Singaporean said in a television interview at the King County Aquatics Centre after his race. "You just have to use what you can, going up against these guys; they are big dudes, I just have to use anything I can."
In the orange and white corner, University of Texas (UT) senior Joseph Schooling won the 200 fly at the NCAAs in 2015 and 2016, but did not qualify for the final last year.
He later admitted that he took his foot off the pedal in training after the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he won the men's 100m fly gold medal.
But he told The Straits Times last month that he has rediscovered his drive and dedication in his last collegiate swimming season.
200-YARD BUTTERFLY SEASON'S BEST
QUAH ZHENG WEN
The 22-year-old's season best of 1:40.72 in the 200-yard fly - clocked at the Texas Invitational last December - ranks him fourth, with University of Arizona's Justin Wright (1:40.57) separating the two Singaporeans in third place.
Schooling clocked 1:42.23 to win the event at the Big 12s late last month, and later said he was still experimenting with his taper.
The Singapore team-mates met in the 100-yard butterfly final at the NCAAs last year, where Schooling (43.75sec) finished second to Caeleb Dressel (43.58sec), while Quah was fifth (45.06sec).
If past results are anything to go by, Quah's latest showing will set him up nicely for the NCAAs from March 21-24 in Minnesota.
This time last year, Quah clocked 1:40.36 in the Pac-12 Invitational - which took place right after the Pac-12s Championships - to qualify for the NCAA meet.
The 2012 and 2016 Olympian then clocked 1:38.83 to win the silver medal in the 200 fly at the NCAAs, finishing behind only UT's Jack Conger (1:37.35), who has since graduated.
Former national swimmer Mark Chay believes that Quah can go even faster.
The Brigham Young University graduate said: "He did a tough 100 fly-100 back double on the second day. His timings were not fast but I think he was not rested.
"I firmly believe that Zheng can go 1:36 (in the 200 fly)... He's always had awesome turns and underwaters which make him such an asset for Cal Berkeley."
But he also believes that Schooling will want to go out with a bang.
Chay said: "This is Joe's senior year at Texas and he definitely wants to end his college career on a high. He had a wake-up call last year after the Olympics and I know he's been putting in the work required to do well."
Meanwhile, Lionel Khoo set a national record of 1:01.96 in the 100m breaststroke as he finished second in the B final of the event at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Atlanta yesterday morning.
He met the Asian Games "B" qualifying time of 1:02.44 for this event, and narrowly missed the 1:01.60 "A" mark. His previous national mark was 1:02.26.
"It felt really good being able to finally break the 1:02 barrier ," said Khoo, who was aiming for the "A" mark.
Earlier in the meet, Khoo also rewrote his own 200m breast national record with 2:15.24. His old mark was 2:15.27.