Former hurdling queen believes current athletes have great potential

Former hurdling queen believes current athletes have great potential

Former hurdling queen Heather Merican used to "run, not jump, over the hurdles".

And this was a technique she perfected under the watchful eyes of Tan Eng Yoon, one of the best athletics coaches Singapore has produced.

As the South-east Asia (SEA) Games athletics programme intensifies with the glamour events at the National Stadium, Heather, a multi-gold winner in the late Sixties and Seventies at the biennial event, throws her weight behind Singapore's track and field contingent with words of encouragement.

Now residing 14,200 kilometres away in the United States, Heather, 66, is aware that the current lot are not as strong as that of her era when Singapore was a South-east Asian powerhouse in track and field.

When Singapore first staged the South-east Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games in 1973, Heather contributed two out of the six athletics golds for the hosts with her 100m and 200m hurdles triumphs.

And they did not come easily.

Recalling her glory days in an e-mail interview from her Tujunga home, facing the mountains in Los Angeles, Heather said: "As a kid I used to outrun bigger boys in my neighbourhood during the 'catching' games and my father Dudley signed me up for athletics training clinics at Singapore Recreation Club.

"My first coach was P.K. Koshy who saw me through school (CHIJ, Victoria Street), City District and club victories in the sprints and long jump.

"And later, when national coach Eng Yoon took me under his wings, I flourished in the sprints and hurdles."

STEPPING UP

It was sheer coincidence that Heather made a big mark in the hurdles.

She said: "When Evelyn Lee (Eng Yoon's wife), who was the hurdles champion, was thinking of retiring, Eng Yoon began preparing me for the 1967 SEAP Games in Thailand.

"I was only 17 and I won the 80m hurdles at the Games. I was also a member of the sprint relay team."

After her double-gold victory in 1973, she was elated to receive the 100m hurdles medal from then-Singapore President Benjamin Sheares.

And she received a letter of commendation from then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the pictures of which are her treasures, and a testament of her contribution to the Republic.

She went on to win gold and silver (200m hurdles, 100m hurdles) in Bangkok in 1975, then a silver in the 200m hurdles in 1977 in Kuala Lumpur.

Her medal record in the Games ended in 1979 in Jakarta when she won bronze, the gold going to her arch-rival from Malaysia, Marina Chin.

No female athlete has won an individual sprints medal since the 1973 SEAP Games.

But the grandmother of three believes Dipna Lim-Prasad, 24, and Shanti Pereira, 19, are capable of helping Singapore return to its glory days.

It may not be at this Games, although Shanti has a fighting chance in the 200m, says Heather.

The former beauty queen, who participated at the "Queen of the Pacific Quest", keeps tabs of the performances of the two Singaporeans via social media.

And when she was last here two years ago, she spent some time with Lim-Prasad and Shanti, offering them running tips.

She said: "Mental preparation is just as important as the physical exertion athletes go through in months of intensive training."

On her own preparation, Heather said: "Days before the event, I run my event in my mind a thousand times.

"Each time I didn't get off to a good start, or if I didn't move over the hurdle the way I felt I should have, I would stop and rehearse it all over again until I had run it perfectly.

"On the night before, especially, I pray for inner-strength. On the race day itself I would force carbohydrates into my system for energy.

"Before my race I would warm up for an hour or so. I usually would not like to talk to anyone as I would be in deep concentration.

"Then you just go, leaving all the training you have done to, hopefully, take over, and wish for some luck as well."

Her encouraging words for the Singapore athletes: "I wish you all the very best in your endeavour to win medals.

"To each athlete in every sporting event, don't be swayed by critics.

"Have faith in your hard, dedicated training. Be strong in your will and try and perform your best."

And as a serious parting note to local fans, she said: "Spectators make a big difference to participants.

"It is good to cheer for champions, but remember, it's the underdog who deserves more support so that he can perform beyond his own potential."

Before my race I would warm up for an hour or so. I usually would not like to talk to anyone as I would be in deep concentration. - Former hurdling queen Heather Merican


This article was first published on June 9, 2015.
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