Junie Sng Poh Leng
First Singapore woman to win swimming gold at the Asian Games
Talk about swimming in the 1970s in Singapore, and you can’t miss the teenage girls who made waves. A star swimmer was Junie Sng Poh Leng. She was just 14 when she became the first Singaporean female swimmer to win gold for Singapore at the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1978.
In fact, she won two golds, in the 400m and 800m freestyle, breaking the Games record in both and becoming the then youngest gold medallist in the history of the Games. The Bangkok Post called her the Star of the 8th Asian Games. That same year, she made it to the finals in the 800m freestyle in the Commonwealth Games in Canada.
“I’m very determined and it takes a lot of this to stay in swimming because it’s such a hard sport, mentally,” she once told The Straits Times.
Junie made her international debut as a swimmer at age 11 at the 8th SEAP Games in 1975, winning a gold and a silver medal. In the 9th SEA Games in 1977, she won five gold medals, and broke six meet and two Asian Games women’s records. She also broke the Singapore Open men's 800m and the women's 400m freestyle records.
She was to reign in the pool in both the SEA and Asian Games until she left competitive swimming in 1983. In 1979, in the 10th SEA Games, she bagged five gold, two silver and one bronze medals, breaking three games and three national records. At the 1981 SEA Games in Manila, Junie won seven golds.
Singapore’s much-loved star swimmer retired at her peak, after winning 10 golds at the 1983 SEA Games held in Singapore. At those games, she became the first woman in Asia to swim the 800m freestyle in under 9 minutes. She did it in 8 minutes, 59.46 seconds.
Her swimming prowess brought quick acknowledgement. In 1976, she won the Singapore National Olympic Council’s Meritorious Award (Senior). For three years running, in 1977, 1978 and 1979, Junie was named Singapore’s Best Sportswoman. In 1982, she was awarded the Public Service Star.
Junie left Singapore in 1980 to study in Australia. Although she continued to swim for Singapore until she retired from competition in 1983, she did not return to Singapore to live, settling with her family in her adopted country. She is married with two sons, and lives and works in Melbourne.
“It’s well and good to relive the past and what I did. But really, you have to live for the future.”