“I have always been trying to support Singapore’s rowers,” says coach Goken Sakamoto, who's back in the Lion City for another coaching stint. The first time he was here - from 2012 to 2015 - Goken was closely involved in two historic milestones for Singapore rowing: Saiyidah Aisyah striking gold at the 2013 Southeast Asian Games; and our lightweight men’s four winning silver at the 2015 edition.
Singapore Rowing's president Paul Supramaniam describes Goken as a key building block in the effort to uplift rowing to a level befitting the Singapore brand. "Our elite rowers have warmed to him," says Paul. "I've asked Goken in leading our national team, to instil in our rowers a sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and so to stress teamwork, shared perseverance, humility and to aim high."
Also welcoming Goken's return to Pandan Reservoir is vice-president and head of training and development Steve Davies, saying: "He brings with him his past experience of working here, his knowledge of the local system and now also the international perspectives that he has built up over the last few years as an elite coach in Hong Kong and Japan."
Read on to better understand Goken's role at Singapore Rowing today - and to find out more about the stoic Japanese trainer who's had no small impact on the lives of many local athletes.
You’ve been brought back as a “consultant national coach”. Tell us what that means.
Goken: A typical "national coach" position requires you to focus on coaching the national team to reach its goals at target competitions, which were my jobs in other countries.
Singapore Rowing requires me to also perform as a "pathway coach", which does outreach and coach development. So it’s a busy position!
What led to you agreeing to this second stint in Singapore?
I had a casual chat with Nadzrie (Hyckell, ex-national rower and member of the silver-winning LM4-) in December 2022 when he was at the Asian championships - and in the end, it just happened.
Anyway, I have always been trying to support Singapore’s rowers, even when I was working in other countries.
You've worked for the national rowing squads of regional powerhouses like Japan and Hong Kong, coaching their athletes to appearances and medals at the Olympics, World Championships, World Cup and Asian Games levels. What attracted you to Singapore, where our achievements - for now - have been more modest?
The fact that Singapore Rowing is trying to rebuild its structure to bring rowing into the Singapore community, while aiming for better competition results, excites me to get involved.
What are your impressions of the current crop of athletes?
Hardworking and passionate about rowing.
What’s your plan for them?
The first step is to get into structured training and then to train consistently. Gradually we will need to improve the quantity and quality of training to prepare for competitions.
There is the Asian Games this year, but that will be too close to expect any good results, so the primary target for most would be the 2025 SEA Games.
Of course, we are planning to participate in more competitions in between.
What do you think are the prospects for our rowers?
I believe that with Singapore Rowing's new leadership, rowing is poised for growth and recognition as a sport that represents the Singapore brand.
The current generation of rowers will pioneer this new era, and they have the potential to establish high-performance standards to inspire future generations.
However, it's important to acknowledge that achieving success in high-performance sports takes time, and everyone involved should remain patient and focused on their tasks at hand.
As rowing coaches often say, '"take one stroke at a time".
You actually worked in coach development at the Singapore Sports Institute the last time you were here; and you have a PhD in engineering with a focus on the physiology of rowing. How does all of that influence your coaching?
The experience at SSI helps me understand Singapore's sporting culture and structure.
Rowing is a physically demanding sport, so understanding physiology certainly helps.
My knowledge also allows me to collaborate with sports science and sports medicine experts.
How are you settling down in Singapore, and what takes up your time outside of rowing?
It’s always difficult being away from your family.
Doing some exercise and meeting my old friends is all I’ve been able to do.
Also, there are many Singaporean cuisines which I have to revisit!