Out of the Pool: Mark Chay on Journey from BYU, Joining Singapore’s Parliament and Esports

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Photo Courtesy: Mark Chay

Out of the Pool: Mark Chay on Journey from BYU, Joining Singapore’s Parliament and Esports

Mark Chay’s career since graduating BYU has taken him all over the world.

In the pool, Chay represented Singapore at two Olympic Games. Out of it, he’s worked just about everywhere. He’s worked for a national trade association in the Middle East. He’s worked in a variety of sports, from swimming and field hockey (both with national federations) to developing curriculum for fencing and kickboxing (with a private sports academy). He’s also been involved in the family business, helping expand Coleman College, and also building the International Sports Academy to offer Singaporeans an American-style mix of education and sports achievement.

The latest honor for Chay is being nominated to Singapore’s parliament, one of nine Nominated Members of Parliament that represent not constituents or a geographic area but specific economic sectors to help consult on policy.

Through it all, swimming has been a common theme, with Chay keeping up with his coaching licensing in the United States and Australia. He’s also coached Paralympic champion swimmer, Yip Pin Xiu, for the last two years.

Chay took his time, though, before coming back to swimming.

“Why I didn’t do it right out of college, why I didn’t want to be a swim coach or own a swim team, was really because I guess you’ve been doing so much of it for a very long time, a big part of your life, and to some extent when I retired, it left a very bitter taste in my life,” Chay said.

Mark Chay shared more in an interview with Swimming World. (Interview has been edited and condensed.)

Swimming World: Provo is a long way from Singapore. How did that opportunity to swim at BYU come about?

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Mark Chay at the 2008 Commonwealth Games; Photo Courtesy: Mark Chay

Mark Chay: I swam at the 1999 World Championships in Hong Kong and I guess I did pretty OK. I missed the B finals and was one place behind Arunas Savickas from BYU, and the coach saw me swim and he asked if I would be keen to swim in the U.S. At BYU, we’ve had many of our national swimmers from Singapore go there. … We’ve had a rich history of sending swimmers to BYU.

SW: While you were at BYU, you had an injury where your knee kept dislocating. That sounds quite painful; what was it like battling through that?

MC: There wasn’t a lot of sports science or swimming knowledge when I was swimming. It’s only until recently, we had the National Training Center, we had Sergio Lopez and Stephan Widmar who came in and they really set the bar high for the knowledge and expertise in swimming training and coaching. (In college), it was the fitter you are, the better you are. There wasn’t a lot of talk about periodization or even strength and conditioning. One day, I was just in the gym and my dislocated my knee … right before military service. That was a quite trying time and I went into military service before I went to BYU and I had committed to BYU, and that is to me something that is very important, because a school wanted to recruit me and even though I could just stop swimming because of a career-ending knee injury, I decided to continue swimming in college for BYU.

SW: You’ve swum in two Olympics and been part of the Singapore delegation for a number of other international events. What highlights stand out to you?

MC: Those Olympics hold a very special part of my life. That’s the whole reason why I decided to swim from a young age: I wanted to be an Olympian, I wanted to represent my country at the highest levels, even though I didn’t win. It’s tough, but when you go through that kind of training, you wake up early in the morning, it shapes the kind of character you have and your discipline and values. We can be taught the theory of values, but sports and swimming is one of the few opportunities to be able to practice and put them in play, and I was very fortunate on a daily basis to do that. Swimming training is very tough, and every single day is about striving for perfection and excellence, and to be able to practice these values and systems on a daily basis was a real privilege.

SW: In your varied professional career, it seems that your studies in communications at BYU serve as a kind of central hub to all the other ventures. Do you see that as important in the path you’ve traveled?

MC: At university, I had no idea what I wanted to do, like most freshmen and sophomores. I took a communications class just as a general elective and I liked it. So I decided to enroll in the communications school which provided me a great foundation and base to enter the industry. My first job was in strategy, mergers and acquisitions, although I didn’t do finance. I guess it helped me a lot with understanding corporate culture, understanding internal communication and framing my thoughts and communication them to the various stakeholders within an organization.

SW: You’ve worked with a bunch of different sports, from the Singapore (Field) Hockey Association to the Singapore Swimming Federation to coaching para-swimming. I wonder what the experience with para-swimming in particular has taught you.  

MC: Para-swimming has been an incredible journey for me. That was about two years ago that I started coaching Arya Pin Xiu, who is a world champion and Olympic champion and she holds two world records in the 50 and 100 back for S2. She needed a coach, so the Singapore Disability Sports Council (that is like the national federation for para-swimming in Singapore), they approached me to ask if I would be keen. That’s how I started with para-swimming and our first assignment was the World Championship in London in 2019, and we came back with two medals.

SW: Is there anything different in how you approach training for a para-swimmer?

MC: I kind of thought things would be different and they are different – it’s really like training a different sport. But if you have the basic foundation of physiology, strength and conditioning and sports science – and I have a great team with the Singapore Sports Institute to help me break down whatever I need – then the transition is smoother. But I think what’s important, and this is a lesson that I learned from the para-athletes particularly Pin Xiu, is not to put any limitations on them. They are amazing athletes. They’ve overcome so much in their lives. In my mind I was like, ‘she has muscular dystrophy, she is 28; what can I actually do with her?’ And she surprises me every single session. We set time standards, targets, and she hits them. She’s one of the hardest, most disciplined swimmers I know, despite whatever she’s going through. My big lesson from coaching para-athletes is do not put any limitations on these swimmers because they’ll end up surprising you more often than not.

SW: Your latest role is as a Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore. What does that honor mean to you and what do you want to accomplish in that role?

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Photo Courtesy: Mark Chay

MC: Being in Parliament is the highest platform where law, policies, current affairs are being debated. Being a Member of Parliament is amazing. For someone like me that is not part of any political affiliation, this is the best opportunity for me to participate at that level because the Nominated Members of Parliament, they don’t represent a constituency or a geographic area or people who voted for them, but they represent an industry and an alternate view. In this particular time where COVID-19 has really impacted the world and Singapore, and for them to choose sports and fitness as one of the main thrusts of the nine (members) that can be selected, it says a lot about how sports can help Singapore through the pandemic.

SW: You’ve spoken about sports being important for social change. How do you see that occurring within Singapore specifically?

MC: We understand the importance of sports, particularly participating in sports, how it can help with your physical resilience, your mental resilience, how it can inculcate values. … In Singapore, we have a lot of incidents of social isolation and mental health (issues), especially during what we call the “circuit-breaker” but essentially it was a lockdown (during the COVID-19 pandemic). I think participation through sports can help with mental well-being and help with that resilience, especially if it’s done within a structured environment. It can help with the physical and mental well-being of an individual. Beyond that, there’s a lot of opportunities this year for sports to inspire and sports to unite, and through the great performances of our athletes hopefully this year in Tokyo, we have the SE Asian Games around the corner, it can be a source for all Singaporeans to rally behind and be inspired.

SW: I have to talk about esports: You’re the director of the Global Esports Foundation. Tell me about what you’ve seen the growth of that sector being?

MC: What we want to do is we want to become a convening platform for the industry, whether that’s publishers, gamers or organizations or institutes. And esports is an interesting sport because the intellectual property is owned by the publishers. It’s not like (if in swimming) butterfly is owned by Speedo and backstroke is owned by Arena. It’s different. The intellectual property is owned by publishers and you really need to work with them. But there is a demand for content and in 2020, because everyone is starved for live-action sports and content, especially in Southeast Asia, we saw a surge in participation in gaming as well as viewership through Twitch or YouTube or Facebook.

I see huge potential in where the industry is going and what that means for traditional sports is I guess if they really refine their strategies, in times like these where there’s a pandemic and people can’t freely have access to facilities and sports programs, they can switch their strategies. (IOC president) Thomas Bach did mention twice last year that the national sports federations need to rethink their esports strategies. I think he was making reference to the cycling federation the way people were cycling with Zwift and Formula 1 where people were racing in pods with their consoles. With the Global Esports Federation, we have 11 international federations that have joined us, and we’re helping them with their esports strategies. Not everyone is going to be like a Zwift where we have a computer screen and you compete in that form, but some of them could be like a FIFA where it’s console games.

But I think there’s some exciting products that are coming out, particularly with some of the gaming companies that we’ve linked together with the international federations on wearable technology to enable people to participate even in times like these through a pandemic. And what this does is not only enable people to continue their sport, but it also breaks down barriers. Where you have wearable technology, take for example taekwondo, where in the traditional sense, you’re not able to fight with someone of a different gender, different age group, different weight class. But with competing with wearable technology on that platform, you are able to. And through some tweaks, what this means is even including para-athletes is a possibility. … I hope there will be more such conversations where traditional sports see that esports is an enabler for them to reach a wider audience and make their sports more prolific.

SW: I don’t know if you see any difference between “traditional” athletes and esports athletes, or if there’s anything odd about being a traditional athlete in this esports space. Where do you see that?

MC: To make that connection with traditional athletes or swimmers or athletic people and gaming is something that they already do. They participate. It’s just like for me to want to shoot some hoops. I can do it, but definitely not at the level that the NBA guys are doing it. And what we see with the current generation of world-beaters in esports, they recognize that the skills required are really mental agility, mental stamina and fast reactions. And there’s no way that you’re able to hone these skills without training the physical vessel, which is the body. So we see some of these professional teams and athletes really working out like professional athletes. And maybe it’s not as well known because it’s an emerging sport, but the more we see professional esports athletes at the fore, the more people know about what they do and how they train, they obviously don’t do the 5 a.m. practices like we swimmers do, but we are a different species of animals. I guess there will be a better appreciation that esports athletes are actually athletes, and if you really think about what sports is, there’s the physical mastery, there’s the skills mastery and there’s the application. Esports has all of those. It’s just about what our interpretation of the vehicle they use to exemplify all those skills is.