Singapore water polo player Chow Yong Jun, 14, lands two-year stint with Serbian club
SINGAPORE – At first glance, water polo player Chow Yong Jun does not appear to be your typical 14-year-old boy with his 1.86m and 80kg frame.
It is not just his physique that sets him apart from his peers. In a few days, the teenager will be travelling over 9,400km to the Serbian city of Valjevo, where he will be based on his own for two years with Valis Valjevo’s youth water polo squad as he chases his sporting dreams.
The longest he has been away from home was just over two weeks in 2022 for a training camp in Serbia with his local club Pacer.
It was during that trip that Yong Jun caught the eye of Valis, who compete in the Serbian Water Polo League A, the country’s top league.
A powerhouse in the sport, the Serbia national men’s team are two-time Olympic winners and three-time world champions.
Yong Jun said: “The environment there and in Singapore are quite different. In Singapore they prioritise studies, but over there they play sports. They’re very passionate and they have a lot of drive.
“By going over there, I can improve much faster. The training there is much more tedious and they have a different kind of experience – they’re all bigger, stronger, more aggressive.”
While the club had expressed interest in recruiting Yong Jun as a professional player, his parents were apprehensive as they were worried that the two-year stint would affect his studies.
But when they found out the Singapore Sports School (SSP) allowed for remote learning, Yong Jun transferred from the School of Science and Technology to SSP in 2024.
Donations received under the Singapore Olympic Foundation-Tan Family Water Polo Fund, which were matched by Sport Singapore under the One Team Singapore Fund, were used to cover the stint.
His mother Krystal Koh said: “We’re very worried about him being alone there at this age, but he loves the sport so much and he proved to us he wants to go there. He assured us he can do it and this is a rare opportunity, so we eventually agreed to let him try it out.”
The homemaker, 48, noted her son’s dedication to the sport – there were times when he got home after 11pm due to training.
Yong Jun’s love affair with water polo began in Primary 3, when his father, a former player, introduced him to it. He then made the switch from table tennis.
The right driver and wing impressed in the National League, winning many Most Valuable Player awards in his various Under-14, U-15 and U-16 matches, before earning a call-up to the national youth development squad about six months ago.
Travelling to Serbia in winter to join the team mid-season will be tough, with Yong Jun noting that it was challenging to play against players in his age group during the 2022 trip.
He can also expect an increased training load – in the mornings he will work with the senior squad, with gym sessions scheduled on some days, followed by an evening session in the pool with the younger players.
Yong Jun is determined to do all it takes to get himself ready. When his team here were on a holiday break, he worked out at the gym to maintain his fitness and he has been learning Serbian on his own in the past month.
Ahead of his Serbia stint, he has been training with the senior national team for the last few months.
National men’s coach Kan Aoyagi, who is also Singapore Aquatics’ water polo technical director, noted that it is unusual for a Serbian club to take in players of Yong Jun’s age as “they must be really, really good”.
The Japanese said: “Our target is to have more competition and understand his ability as compared to players of other countries… He really has the motivation to play, very passionate. I hope when he goes to Serbia, he continues to improve.”
Yong Jun is already eyeing a spot in Singapore’s senior side, who have won 28 gold medals at the SEA Games. He added: “I believe when I go over to Valis, they will help me achieve the best of my ability and push me. I hope that I will be able to play for the national team one day and win some medals.”
Professor Tan Say Beng, representative of the Singapore Olympic Foundation-Tan Family Water Polo Fund, said it is “pleased to support Yong Jun’s aspirations in water polo”.
“We are encouraged by his desire and courage to take the path less travelled to train and study in a foreign and competitive environment in his aim to be a better athlete. We hope he fulfils his objectives in this endeavour and gains valuable experience to continue contributing to Singapore water polo.”