SEA Games: Hear the Tao Li roar

SEA Games: Hear the Tao Li roar
Tao Li waving at the fans during the 28th SEA Games at OCBC Aquatic Centre on 11 June 2015.

It was the voice of Katy Perry that was blasted over the airwaves at the OCBC Aquatic Arena, the pop queen belting out her hit "Roar" at the end of the SEA Games women's 100m butterfly race.

The ears heard the melodious roar of the American diva, but out in the pool and on the big screens, the eyes witnessed a roar of a completely different kind - primal and unrehearsed, it seemed to erupt from the very depths of Singapore swimmer Tao Li.

Perry's voice drowned Tao's, but the 25-year-old's violent slapping of the water was unmistakably visceral.

"People question me, doubt me - and I proved that I could still do it," said Tao, now roaring audibly. "People questioning me is a motivation for me, to prove that I could do well."

She won the race in 59.79 seconds, ahead of compatriot Quah Ting Wen (1:00.30) and the Philippines' Jasmine Alkhaldi (1:01.00).

But it was the girl who didn't appear on the podium that got Tao Li going.

Vietnam's Nguyen Thi Anh Vien made no secret that she was eyeing the scalp of Tao Li, and in the latter's pet event of the 100m butterfly at that.

Nguyen was not the first to think that Tao Li is a swimmer past her sell-by date, and ripe for the taking.

But perhaps drained by the 11 individual events she was registered for, Nguyen flopped, finishing far outside the medals, her 1:01.53 was good enough for only sixth spot.

"The 100m fly is my pet event, and people said they want to challenge me, they want to beat me.

"My friends sent me messages saying that girl (Nguyen) wants to beat you, and obviously I felt pressure," said Tao.

"When I touched the wall, it was just a release of all that - proved that I'm still No. 1, and I'm very proud to have won on home ground."

Tao Li was not quite done with the young Vietnamese upstart just yet, her roar was followed by a baring of teeth.

"She needs to learn the lesson that you shouldn't talk like you're a big shot before the race, just keep a low profile," spat Tao Li.

Flying beneath the media radar this time, Tao Li struck gold in all five events she was entered in at the Games.

But it wasn't just Nguyen that Tao Li believed she needed to prove a point to.

There were question marks raised when she was absent from the Singapore Swim team training camp ahead of the Games, the former Singapore Sports School student electing instead to train in China.

"I think I also proved a point that I always make the right decision for myself. People were talking about why I went for high-altitude training, instead of coming back here - but I proved that it was the right decision," she said.

"I won all my events, got five gold medals, and I was in good form throughout the meet.

"For me deep down in my heart, I've achieved what I wanted."

"I don't need attention from the media or anything, but doing this (five gold medals), the media can't ignore me, right?" she added, her trademark cheeky grin forming.

"But I've been in the limelight for 10 years already, it's time I moved aside for the younger ones."

And she is ready to put swimming aside for now, even at the cost of a spot at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

She said: "Whether I make to the Olympics or not is no big deal to me - I've got to go to school now. I've deferred school for two years now, and I've got to finish it."

Her final statement was delivered calmly and seemingly emotionless, but it was a roar of a different kind.

"Swimming will now be the second thing in my life."

This article was first published on June 12, 2015.
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