S'pore sprint champ relives her momentous race

S'pore sprint champ relives her momentous race
FINAL FLOURISH: Shanti Pereira (far right) finishing ahead of the Philippines’ Kayla Richardson and bronze medallist Nguyen Thi Oanh of Vietnam (near right).
PHOTO: TNP

She won Singapore's first sprint gold medal at the South-east Asia (SEA) Games after 42 years.

She rocked a nation with her effort and became our darling of the Games.

But life hasn't really changed much for Veronica Shanti Pereira.

The 18-year-old proved uncatchable over 200m at the National Stadium, but she's struggling a little bit to keep pace with her daily schedule now that the Games is over.

For one, she has had to hit the books again. Shanti is enrolled in the leisure management course at Republic Polytechnic, one of the post-secondary programmes offered by the Singapore Sports School, where she completed her secondary studies. It was the reason she was a few minutes late for The New Paper's interview at the Sports School.

"Sorry, sorry, I had my FYP (final year project) meeting," she sheepishly explained.

It was a Wednesday, exactly one week after the historic race on June 10.

We walked along on the track at the Sports School, where no doubt a much younger Shanti spent hours sweating on her craft.

I showed her a video of the women's 200m final, and asked her to go back to that moment in history.

The setting was not as majestic as the cavernous, 55,000-capacity, arena where she thrilled almost 10,000 spectators.

But it was no less meaningful, because it was where her foundations were laid. It was where she trained - almost every day for seven years - under coach Margaret Oh, the former national sprinter who trained her since she was 13.

Holding the SEA Games gold medal in her hand, she took TNP through the race of her life...

THE START

Almost eight hours before the 6.35pm final, Shanti received an unexpected boost.

Soon after the morning heats, when she clocked a new national record of 23.82sec, she was told she would be in Lane 4 in the final.

"I found that out while I was cooling down," she said.

"I was pleasantly surprised. I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow, they gave me a good lane'.

"But honestly, I would have been fine with even Lane 1."

In the 200m event, the two inner-most (Lanes 1 and 2) and outer-most (Lanes 8 and 9) are most disliked by runners.

Lanes 1 and 2 are considered too "tight" on the curve, while runners on the Lanes 8 and 9 will not be able to see the competition.

Shanti may have made light of her lane allocation, but her coach didn't.

Oh told Shanti: "You got the good lane. Now it's up to you."

The teenager looked cool and relaxed - she delivered a wink and a heart-shaped salute to her supporters moments before settling down for the start - and exploded out of her blocks with an unusually strong start.

"After about 10 metres, I looked up," said Shanti.

"I saw the Malaysian (Zaidatul Husniah Zulkifli, in Lane 5), who had quite a good start, in front of me. So my main priority was catching her."

CONTROLLING THE BEND

Very quickly, Shanti had to manage a juggling act. She had to go fast enough to close the gap on her rivals, including Lane 7's Filipina-American Kayla Richardson, who had beaten her in the 100m a day earlier, but also not go full tilt.

"Around the bend, my main target was just trying to catch whoever was in front of me, and at that point, it was Malaysia's Zaidatul," said Shanti. "But I knew I could not go too fast, too. My coach warned me that if I did, I would be finished before the end."

When asked how she balanced the two needs, she shrugged and said: "I guess I just know if I'm whacking too hard. I don't know how else to describe it." After 60m, she caught up with Zaidatul, touted as one of the title contenders. But the Singaporean wasn't about to start celebrating. "At the corner of my eye, I could still see Kayla was in front of me."

REVVING UP

Having conserved her energy for half the race, Shanti turned on the afterburners as the race transitioned from the curve to the straight. "This transition is my favourite part," she gushed, animatedly. "Your body is in a curve position, you're getting quicker. You nicely come up and it's the straight where you can just 'whack' all the way. It's such a good feeling... You feel damn good."

With 85m to go, Shanti had left Zaidatul, on her right, and Thai Tassaporn Wannakit, on her left, for dead.

"But I could still see Kayla from the corner of my eye," she said. "So my approach for the final stretch of the race was simple: 'Don't get caught.' I just gave it all I had."

FULL THROTTLE

As Shanti closed on the finish line, the crowd sensed a special finish was on the cards and the sound from the stands got louder and louder.

She said: "I was trying to focus on my own race and only paid more attention to the crowd towards the end. I heard their screams and I was pretty sure the stadium was shaking!"

She appeared to ease off in her final three or four strides, because she was simply spent.

"That wasn't me easing off... It was me dying," she joked.

"I was losing my energy but I still had to try maintain my lead.

"But I knew I won it because I couldn't see anyone beside me when I dipped, that's why I raised my arms."

Shanti won gold in a new record of 23.60sec, and she vividly remembers what she did next.

"I looked up at the screen, then at the timing (on the clock next to the finish line), then turned around to see the crowd. That was the sweetest part.

"I couldn't see anybody in particular in the (stands), but they were just going crazy.

"Then I saw my coach on the track, she said 'Come here,' so I did, we hugged, she cried. I was just very, very happy. I couldn't stop smiling."

Shanti was handed a Singapore flag and went on her victory lap, up and down the stretch in front of the grandstand, where the spectators were still going wild.

The teenager, though, hadn't digested the magnitude of her feat.

She said: "The whole time (during the celebration) I was just wondering to myself: 'How can some athletes do one entire round of the track?'

"I was just jogging, and I wasn't even going fast, but I was so tired."

At the end of the Sports School track, Shanti paused for a brief moment, apparently hit by goosebumps.

"Wah, so scary reliving the whole thing," she said, rubbing her arms.

The days after her win had been a whirlwind.

She said: "Over the last week, before I sleep, I watch a video of the race. Some nights, five times.

"It's just about starting to sink in now."

msazali@sph.com.sg

 


This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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