Half a second between elation and despair

Half a second between elation and despair
Singapore's Mervyn Toh powers ahead to win the Men's K1-200m canoeing event at the 28th Sea Games canoeing finals at the Marina Channel on 9 June 2015.

Their second gold medal was in sight. In perfect harmony, Stephenie Chen and Suzanne Seah paddled the hardest they could, with their eyes on the finish line.

But as the pair approached the final 100m, their Thai rivals burst into a sprint to snatch the gold, finishing half a second faster than their Singapore counterparts.

Failing to retain their K2 200m title after winning the 500m race on Monday, disappointment set in for the duo.

While their competitors paddled back to the pontoon, the Singapore kayakers lingered in their boat on the Marina Channel with their heads down.

"We're very disappointed... We've never lost this event before," said Seah, 24, after the competition ended.

The race was just one of several narrow defeats for the Singapore canoeing team yesterday.

In the men's K2 200m, Mervyn Toh and Muhammad Syaheenul Aiman lost the gold to Indonesia's Gandie Gandie and Mugi Harjito by one-third of a second, while the K4 200m women were 0.052sec slower than Thailand and had to settle for silver.

While the canoeists might have been satisfied with silver medals in the past, their unwillingness to settle for second best just shows how much the sport has progressed over the past few years.

And even though it was a less than perfect finish for the Republic's canoeists on the last day of the competition yesterday, the team have much to be proud of.

With two more golds yesterday in the men's and women's K1 200m races, the team have won seven golds and five silvers at the Games - surpassing their 2011 performance of two golds, five silvers and three bronzes.

Before Singapore won their first canoeing medals at the 2003 Games, the sport was relatively unknown to most Singaporeans.

Said team manager Lyuina Lee, a canoeist from 2003 to 2006: "Back then, it was a really small niche sport. Not many people knew what it was. You'd tell them canoeing and they would ask, 'What do you do in canoeing?'"

Although canoeists could compete in the national inter-school competitions, the sport was "not up to the mark yet", said Singapore Canoeing Federation president Yip Kwan Guan.

With little financial backing and no coach who could prepare the athletes for international competition, the sport was at a standstill for years.

But after Hungarian coach Balazs Babella joined the federation in 2008, the team made a breakthrough at the 2011 SEA Games, snaring two golds.

After proving their potential in the sport, some of the canoeists earned greater financial muscle from the annual Sports Excellence Scholarship, which was introduced in 2013.

The team have since been on regular overseas training camps, including one in South Africa in March that lasted more than a month.

"We've improved tremendously and it shows that we're on a good path," said Babella, 37, the 2005 and 2007 world champion in the K4 200m. "We just have to keep on doing the same things and we'll be okay."

Despite the team's achievement at these Games, there is no time to rest.

"I've been here for about seven years and now the hard work paid off. We can do this now, but it's just the beginning of their journey," said Babella.

"The SEA Games are the smallest Games... We have the Asian Games, the Olympics. It's not the end."


This article was first published on June 10, 2015.
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