Jonathan Chan: Preparing for the performance of his life at the Tokyo Olympics

Jonathan Chan is the first diver from Singapore to qualify for the Games
Jonathan Chan is the first diver from Singapore to qualify for the Games

The Singaporean diver is set to compete at the World Cup in Tokyo from 1 May, before making his – and his country's – long-awaited Olympic diving debut in 2021.

When Jonathan Chan came to the 2019 Asian Diving World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia exactly two years ago, his objective was purely simple: he only wanted to get competition experience.

But little did he know that he’d perform beyond everyone’s expectations. He won the men's 10m platform competition and beat crowd favourites WANG Zewei from the People’s Republic of China and Democratic People's Republic of Korea’s Ri Kwon Hyok.

As a continental champion, not only did Chan – who was 22-years-old – win gold, he also earned a quota spot for Tokyo 2020, making him the first diver from Singapore to ever qualify for the Olympic Games.

“We weren't really going there to qualify. It was more of a competition to get experience. [But] I think that [mindset] actually helped because, [in the] competition when you [see] the Chinese divers, it was more of a ‘they're probably going to win’. So there was no stress on me,” Chan told Tokyo 2020.

Looking back, Chan thinks that aside from luck being on his side, there was something else in the works that helped him reach that milestone in his very young career.

“I think originally I thought it was a lot of luck, that I was very lucky, which is not wrong. I super feel lucky. [However] if I didn't put in the work beforehand, I would have gotten the result even if it luck was on my side. So I think it was for all the years of training before that really prepared me for that moment.”

Chan is set to compete in the Asian Diving World Cup in Tokyo this May
Chan is set to compete in the Asian Diving World Cup in Tokyo this May
Adrian Seetho/ Singapore National Olympic Committee

No pressure to medal

That victory catapulted him to fame and earned him the moniker ‘Singapore’s golden boy of diving’. However, the Singaporean diver didn’t mind having this kind of attention for the sake of the sport in Singapore, whose diving programme had only been reintroduced a year before the nation hosted the 2010 Youth Olympic Games.

In fact, it was that event that made Chan fall in love with diving and leave gymnastics, which was the sport he first trained in alongside his sister Kimberly. By 2014, Chan had represented Singapore at the Youth Olympic Games held in Nanjing, China and the year after made his debut at the 2015 Southeast Asian Games where he won an individual bronze in the 10m platform event.

“When I first got into diving the I guess the motivation was more of, it was very fun. And then after that, the motivation changed to try to do well and then I guess now will be more ‘I already hit Olympics’, so I really put in 10 years of work,” Chan said of his diving career to date.

With him qualifying for the Olympics, the sport has now received a level of acceptance in the nation.

“I think diving is a sport here that it's not something very widely known. It's not a very common sport also because as compared to swimming, everyone knows swimming, but not everyone would know diving. And so I think it was good cause we [rode on that] wave of interest to get more people in."

Chan juggles diving and life as an architecture student in Singapore
Chan juggles diving and life as an architecture student in Singapore
Adrian Seetho/ Singapore National Olympic Committee

But with fame comes pressure.

Many are banking on him to do well and follow in the footsteps of swimmer Joseph Schooling, whose unexpected victory at Rio 2016 Games earned Singapore’s first gold.

But Chan says Schooling’s success doesn’t put pressure on him to win medals for Singapore, well, at least not yet.

“It is not a major goal that I worry about, because even if we look back at Joseph he didn't get his gold on his first Olympics. He had a few before he got there. So that's not really that major pressure on myself in that sense,” he said. Chan is hoping to have having a long career and to get more Olympic Games under his belt.

“So I am going into the Games really to enjoy the whole experience rather than stress out or be stressed about,” Chan said with a proud smile.

Delayed debut

With the postponement of the Games last year due to COVID-19, Chan’s Olympic debut was delayed.

His training was disrupted in Singapore and at one stage Chan had no access to a pool for almost three months. Thankfully restrictions have eased and slowly he could return to the pool, albeit while being kept away from other athletes.

“I think the biggest thing that that I forgot about was how hot the water was,” he laughed, before adding “I knew it was hot. But when you go back now, [that's when I realised] it's quite hot.”

And now that the rescheduled Games are happening this year, Chan, who is a fourth-year architecture student at the Singapore University of Technology and Design has to deal with both the Olympic Games and finishing his final semester at the same time.

“I think the stress is more on the timing, because if the Games was held last year, it would have been during my school holidays so I could really prepare for it. But having it this year, it'll be doing my final semester of school very close to my finals also. So I think the stress will be more of this year than last year.”

Juggling school and training had been almost like a way of life for Chan but one thing he never forgets is to enjoy himself.

“Going out, definitely you have to sacrifice because there's no time to do that. Every once in a while, I'll still treat myself to like allow myself to go out with friends. It will be too much of just training and school so it's a good break from everything, but of course it's not as much as other people because I can't afford it.”

This is the reason why Chan finds inspiration from athletes who are able to continue their sporting careers and at the same time juggle everything else.

“I always look look up to the Singaporean athletes who can juggle everything, because in our system here a lot of parents are very focussed on studies. So a lot of people give up their sport for [studies]. So I always look out to those who can really continue on and push for it because it takes a lot of work and yeah [and that] developed my respect [for them]."

The first competition on the road Tokyo 2020

Before Chan sets foot on the Olympic stage, he's now targeting his first competition at the Asian Diving World Cup 2021 which will be held in Tokyo this May.

Chan is happy that it is moving forward after FINA confirmed the new dates.

"Now that the Games are confirmed, I can train without uncertainty and plan what I need to do to get ready for the competition itself," he said.

Again as modest as Chan is, more than having a medal, he likes to see his teammates do well in the competition and get more experience before heading to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

"I'm looking forward to watching the rest of my teammates qualify for the Olympics! I'm also ready to see some world class diving in real life. This competition will be important to get back some competition experience, especially since we have not had a proper competition for over a year," he added.

Whatever the outcome is, Chan is already guaranteed his place at Tokyo 2020, and in just a few months, he'll be on his way to representing Singapore on his Olympic debut.

Chan just realised the magnitude of all this.

“[There’s] pressure to perform well but I think for me, getting to go to the Games itself was really a milestone that I hit,” he said.

“So now that's really just trying to get better and ready for the Games itself.”

Other times, Chan still can’t believe that it’s real.

“I think it's something that I really never expected to happen, so this is something that I still sometimes need to process on some days, [but] well I actually needed [this as] something to remember for the rest of my life.”

Catch all the action of Olympic Diving at Tokyo 2020 from 25 July to 7 August at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.