Making a splash in the swimming scene

Fadhil Yunus

Brunei’s elite swimmers Muhammad Isa bin Ahmad, Christian Nikles and Ashley Chai have all raised the bar in redefining the standards in the national swimming scene after making a huge splash in the 8th Brunei Open and Masters Long Course Swimming Championships.

The trio, boasting international experience in major competitions, either revised the times set by their predecessors or broke their own national open records to cement their status as the fastest swimmers in the country.

The scale of their achievements should not be left unnoticed as they broke two national open records in a single meet, and more impressively, wiped out several records which stood for over a decade.

Having furthered his swimming education in the United Kingdom (UK), Christian made headlines at home after breaking a 20-year old record set by Fadillah Ismail in the men’s 100m backstroke.

His time of 1:02.93s surpassed Fadillah’s record of 1:03.89s, which had stood since August 1999.

The 22-year-old set the tone with a new national open record on the opening day of the championship in the men’s 200m backstroke with a time of 2:18.98s, breaking the time of 2:22.95s set by Nur Haziq Samil.

Muhammad Isa reached a new milestone in the men’s 200m breaststroke after he broke his own national record with a new time of 2:28.12s, beating his previous time of 2:30.70s.

He also re-wrote the record books in the 200m Individual Medley (IM) when he clocked a time of 2:17.86s. Last year, he broke the 200 IM in the same event with a time of 2:18.43s.

Muhammad Isa had also emulated the feat of setting two national open records in a single meet, which he achieved during the previous instalment of the Brunei Open in September 2018.

Ashley Chai, the youngest of the trio at 18 years, has been eyeing national open records for the last two or three years. In a space of just few months, she gained ownership of two records previously held by two senior swimmers who excelled on the national scene.

Christian Nikles performs a butterfly move.
Brunei Darussalam national open record breakers Muhammad Isa bin Ahmad, Ashley Chai and Christian Nikles. PHOTOS: FADHIL YUNUS

Ashley made history after she broke an 11-year-old record held by Maria Grace Koh, a top competitive swimmer in the late 2010s, in the women’s 400m IM. She clocked a time of 5:42.55s, eclipsing the previous mark of 5:46.28s which had remained unopposed since June 2008.

Ashley, who represents Peak Performance Swimming Club, also set a new national open record in the 100m backstroke after she posted a time of 1:12.39s, bettering her old time of 1:12.57s which she posted during the 27th Brunei Age Group Swimming Championships this year.

Fadillah’s long-standing record became a subject of great interest when Christian and his coaching team turned their sights into working towards the backstroke discipline.

“I have been working towards that record since August. We made the shift towards backstroke in training. Coach Wu Na believes that I could set new records there, so that’s what we set out to do and that’s what I did,” said Christian. “It feels good to finally break it (Fadillah’s record). Twenty years is a long time coming.”

During Christian’s earlier years of competitive swimming, Fadillah’s times were benchmarks, especially in the age group records.

“Even when I was a kid and an age group swimmer, the records in the backstroke all belonged to Fadillah. As I moved up, Fadillah still held the 12-13 and the 15-18 years records. He held the age groups all the way up to the Open.

“He spends around the pool, he coaches. I’ve known him since the first time I practised when I was 12 years old,” added the Arafura Games gold medallist.

Christian and Muhammad Isa have been working tirelessly under the tutelage of national swimming coach Wu Na, especially when the pair was preparing for the World Championships in Gwangju, Korea in July this year.

Both national swimmers agreed that they have largely benefitted from the coaching methods and practices envisioned by their coach. Currently, the swimmers are at an initial phase of the coach’s structured training programme, but the conditions and intensity of training helped them to move to another level.

Christian said, “We literally just started this programme this year. We’re all pretty much getting used to it. We’re still trying to find our feet. We’re still adapting to the training and we’re not 100 per cent yet.

“We had a meeting with her a few weeks ago. She said that it will get harder and we’re building up to that with higher intensity. With Olympics coming next year, it is exciting to see how fast we go.”

The 22-year-old local swimmer has also acknowledged the rise of local competitions organised by the Brunei Amateur Swimming Association (BASA), adding that they have done a great job in collaborating with the local clubs.

He said, “I’m not thinking about breaking the record, I don’t think like that during training. In training, I think about how many kicks I do off the wall, how my stroke feels like catching the waters right. I don’t think about catching the record.”

After seeing the potential of Christian’s ability in backstroke, coach Wu Na has appeared to play an influential role in Ashley’s switch to 400 IM.

“I’m actually surprised that I got to beat the 400 IM because it isn’t my event. And then coach Wu Na asked me to swim in the 400 IM,” said Ashley, who specialises in the 50m and 100m backstroke disciplines.

“I don’t have a lot of time to train hard and I was surprised to beat it by four seconds. That was surprising and it was also my first event after a long break of competition,” the 18-year-old said.

The elite swimmer has a busy schedule this year, having competed in the SEA Age Group Championships in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the end of June and the ASEAN School Games in Semarang, Indonesia in July before taking a break from hard training.

She said, “I was back from hard training, that is why I don’t think if I’ve had enough preparation, especially for the 400 IM.”

Ashley has aimed an even faster time in the 100m backstroke, though her exploits in the pool were good enough to qualify for a national record. The swimmer was plagued with problems coming into the event as well as the other disciplines with more national records in her sights.

She said, “In my 100m backstroke, I wanted to do at least 1:10 and I ended up doing 1:12.39s. I think after the first day, I wasn’t feeling so well. I had fever and stomach pain.”

The Peak Performance Swimming Club swimmer came close in smashing other records during the meet, including Nur Hamizah’s national record by 0.06 milliseconds in the 50m backstroke.

Ashley also missed out on the national record in the 200 IM after she posted a time of 2:39s, just short of the 2:36 time set by Amanda Liew. While the 400 IM came as a surprise, the swimmer has hoped to match and succeed Amanda as the new national open record holder.

The 18-year-old, who competed in the Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa in 2015, sets a common goal in establishing new national records during every competition.

She continued, “For every event in every competition, it is important to set a goal. If not, you don’t know where you’re heading. You don’t know where you want to finish or you want to go. For me it is the national record.”

Ashley’s set of national records bodes well for the future as her confidence grew into setting more records, especially the ones that were nearly realised.

“I think since I came so close to breaking some of the national records, I am more motivated and believe that in the next competition, if I work harder, I won’t just beat it by a few milliseconds but also a whole lot more,” she added.

Moving forward, the 18-year-old swimmer has set her sights on making it to the top eight in an international competition.

Asked on her thoughts of breaking Maria’s 11-year-old record, Ashley said, “It is very motivating. It has been there for so long, so I think it kind of boosted my confidence and made me want to break it even further. I might start training for the 400 IM again.”

Each race is designed with the intention to break the national record, and Muhammad Isa agreed with the statement.

“Setting a record is always the goal for us and trying to be better than we did in the last race,” he said. “In this competition, I managed to get my 200m breaststroke time which was on the board for six years.”

At that time, Muhammad Isa was in the UK and as a 17-year-old he was focussing on long distance races including breaststroke events.

“After that, I just started focussing on sprinting including the 50m and 100m. I never really entered into the events for the past six years. I entered it in the Brunei Age Group but I didn’t manage to get a national record though I came close,” he said.

“I’m really happy to get the national record after six years. I wasn’t expecting it as well.” Muhammad Isa, who is also coached by Wu Na, has attributed the success of his national records to the work undertaken in training.

“We were doing a lot of volume in training so we were doing more kilometres in training with the average of at least 5km to 6km in each session, focussing on long strokes of different techniques which is suited to 200m,” he said.

The elite swimmer gave an insight on the demands of the training programme outlined by the new national coach, with the current coaching regime looking to elevate the country’s current athletes to another level.

Muhammad Isa said, “The national training is really intense. I started with her (coach Wu Na) last year for a month. I was the first person to train under her. I already found it really hard.

The 21-year-old added, “I think it is nice because we can see the progression. The hard sets that we were doing before July are now all our easy sets. Now, it just gets harder each week. So, now I think she’s slowly building it up.”

Muhammad Isa added, “I really enjoy it and I love it. I’m grateful for her (coach Wu Na) and the Department of Youth and Sports (JBS) for bringing her in. She is working hard to improve the standards of swimming in Brunei.”

Actively involved in swimming, he just took two days off since his participation in the World Championships in Korea.

The swimmer said that the physical part is much easier than the mental part when making the transition in switching to competition mode. He said, “I always think it is 80 per cent mental and 20 per cent physical.

“The mental game is tough because you need to know when to relax and when to be in the zone.”