Jing-E Tan swims at the 2015 FINA world juniors. (WP/Courtesy of Adrian Seetho)

On the way to an early-morning swim practice in Singapore five years ago, Jing-E Tan's father, Ken, turned to his sleep-deprived daughter sitting in the passenger seat and voiced his concern.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked as the car pulled up to a stoplight.

In Singapore, Tan was considered one of the country's next swimming stars, but its rigorous education system often forces promising young athletes like Tan to choose between competitive sports and academics. At 12, students have to take a high-stakes test called the Primary School Leaving Examination, and Tan was staying up past midnight to study, only to wake hours later for swim practice.

Yes, Tan told her father that morning, she wanted to keep swimming.

"Okay," Ken replied. "Then I will support you all the way, as long as you are happy doing it."

So in the summer of 2014, Tan, her parents and two of her three brothers made the 10,000-mile journey from Singapore to the United States to help Tan pursue more swimming opportunities. Tan acknowledges that she probably would have given up the sport had she stayed in Singapore, an island country south of Malaysia.

"People tend to put their school in front of their sport," she said. "I think it's just because of the culture."

When Tan arrived in the United States, she trained at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club made famous by Michael Phelps before she mov ed to the Washington area, where she now swims for Katie Ledecky's club coach, Bruce Gemmell, at the Nation's Capital Swim Club.

Last season, she joined the team at Holton-Arms, a private, all-girls school in Bethesda, and was named the most valuable swimmer as a sophomore.

Tan, 17, is used to accolades. At the 2013 Southeast Asia Swimming Championships in Brunei, Tan won gold medals in all seven of her events and claimed three championship records in the 13-and-under age group. A year later, Tan represented Singapore at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Local media followed her exploits in the water and dubbed her a future "swim queen."

"She's got an incredible background," Holton-Arms Coach Graham Westerberg said. "We're very happy to have her, for many reasons."

When Tan was 2, she followed her older brothers to a pool outside of their apartment complex. At one point, Tan slipped out of her floating devices and nearly drowned, which reinforced her father's decision to make sure all of his children could swim. By age 7, she was swimming competitively.


Jing-E Tan poses with Holton-Arms teammate Rachel Blackwell in 2017. (WP/Courtesy of Ellen Globokar)

"My first impression was that I had a gem in my hands," said David Lim, an Olympic swimmer who coached Tan for several years with the Swimfast Aquatic Group and on the Singapore national team. "I thought she was a good talent and had good feel for the water."

Lim, who stepped away from national-team coaching duties in 2015, eventually suggested to Tan's parents that they consider relocating to the United States, like other successful swimmers from Singapore. Lim, 51, swam at Brigham Young University in the 1980s.

Swimming is one of the most popular sports in Singapore. Despite its size, the country dominates swim meets in Southeast Asia. At the end of June 2016, Singapore's population was 5.61 million, according to government figures. That's less than the population of Maryland (6.02 million).

At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Joseph Schooling won Singapore's first Olympic gold medal in any sport, claiming the 100-meter butterfly in 50.39 seconds. But even Schooling, who moved to Florida in 2009 before high school and is now a senior at the University of Texas, said he wouldn't have been able to stay in the sport in Singapore — at least not competitively. His studies would have taken priority.

"The school system is very competitive, and everyone is fighting for spots," Schooling said. "The emphasis is about school and work and not really about sports."

The country came "to a standstill to watch" Schooling's gold medal swim, said Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore's ambassador to the United States. Schooling was treated to a homecoming parade upon his return, riding atop a double-decker bus.

"I think everyone knows Joseph Schooling," Mirpuri said. "I would say Joseph is a household name, I have no doubt."

Schooling's Olympic gold medal already has made an impact on the sporting culture, Mirpuri believes, inspiring a generation of kids to believe that sports can make a difference. The Singapore Swimming Association's National Training Centre was established in 2015 to help support athletic talent.

"I think in most developing societies, success comes from educational and career success," Mirpuri said. "But Joseph offered another alternative."

At Holton-Arms, Tan has been able to find a balance that she was missing in Singapore, staying on top of her schoolwork while being able to dedicate time to swimming. On Friday, Tan, a second-team All-Met selection, hopes to help the Panthers repeat as Independent School League champions.

Her longer-term goal is to swim for a Division I college while also seeking opportunities to represent Singapore at international meets. Lim, her old coach, believes the Olympics are in her future. But for now, Tan simply wants to enjoy her time in the pool and the classroom without sacrificing one for the other.

"I think I've learned to relax a little in school, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing," she said, "because I can take better care of myself, get more sleep and put my effort into every single training session."