Not many thought Shanti Pereira or Muhammad Nur Alfian Juma'en would strike gold, given the fierce competition.
But national sprinter Shanti stormed to victory in the SEA Games women's 200m race, ending a 42-year hoodoo. And silat exponent Alfian overcame a bleeding foot and a world champion opponent to win.
They delivered in vastly different sports, but had one thing in common - both attended the Singapore Sports School (SSP).
They were among 96 students past and present who featured at the recent Games and contributed 32 gold medals - nearly 40 per cent of Singapore's total haul of 84 - plus 19 silvers and 19 bronzes.
"I was not the only one with sporting dreams in school," said 18-year-old Alfian, now a third-year business student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
"My close friends also had the same hopes and the school provided me with discipline and focus to do well in my sport."
Said SEA Games co-chef de mission Nicholas Fang: "The Sports School did very well. It was a very strong result and it's a testament to what the school can do when it comes to developing athletes at an elite level."
At the 2013 SEA Games, 15 of Singapore's 34 gold medals (44 per cent) came from SSP students and alumni.
The school is already looking ahead. It is refining its development pathway, with the results to be announced next month.
Since its first intake in 2004, its Woodlands campus has attracted youngsters aiming to excel in both studies and sports.
Unlike mainstream schools, SSP tailors the academic curriculum around a student's training and competition commitments. For instance, 56 elite student-athletes are on the School Within A School scheme, which allows them to train longer than usual during the day, with schoolwork done at night.
Students can enrol in a through-train programme leading to a diploma in sports and leisure management jointly conducted by the school and Republic Polytechnic (RP). Others can opt for the International Baccalaureate (IB).
Said principal Tan Teck Hock: "We believe in long-term plans when developing a student-athlete. They typically take 10 years before attaining peak performance, so the school's role is akin to an incubator where their foundation is built over the six years they are with us (at SSP and RP)."
But in academic-centric Singapore, many parents prefer to enrol their children in mainstream schools, where sports that can deliver national school titles are typically given more focus and funding. Raffles Institution is a stronghold for table tennis and athletics while Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) is a powerhouse in swimming.
Some parents also prefer not to have their children experience hostel life from Secondary 1 at SSP.
Even so, SSP's pipeline of talent continues to flow. The SEA Games witnessed bowling siblings Keith and Howard Saw and shooter Martina Lindsay Veloso winning gold.
"Howard had enrolled a year before me," said Keith, 20, who won the men's doubles gold with his brother.
"Seeing him do well in both bowling and studies made me realise how good the school was... When it was time to make a choice, it was easy."
Added 15-year-old Martina, who struck gold in the women's 10m air rifle team final: "After nearly four years, I'm still thrilled to be here."
Her mother Loresa had no qualms about enrolling her at SSP after she was spotted through its Learn to Shoot initiative, which covered 19 primary schools in 2011.
She said: "Martina was at the right age for her to decide which school she wanted to join. In my opinion, she would not be a champion today if she had joined a normal secondary school instead."
As mainstream schools continue to improve their sports programmes, SSP has to stay relevant and attractive to parents and students alike.
Singapore National Olympic Council athletes' commission chairman Yip Ren Kai hopes to see more flexibility and collaboration when the review recommendations are implemented.
"There is a need to expand support for athletes past Secondary 4," said the former national water polo player.
"Only a small proportion go into the through-train programme and those who take the IB with the school need more flexibility, maybe based on a credit scheme as compared to a duration of two years.
"Whether with local or international higher institutions, more pathways can be developed to cater to all levels of student-athletes."
This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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