Her kayak cut through the Marina Channel with such ease, it almost seemed as though Stephenie Chen was cruising along in the K1 500m race yesterday.
With a whopping winning margin of more than four seconds over Indonesia's Erni Sokoy, it was a victory that should have left the 23-year-old beaming with joy.
But there were no tears, no raised arm to acknowledge the screaming crowd, not even a token smile.
Save for a brief moment of relief when she shared a celebratory hug with coach Balazs Babella on the pontoon, Chen mostly kept a straight face as she walked back to the athletes' holding area for a five-minute ice bath at 11 deg C.
The win may have been the Singapore women's canoe team's first gold of the Games, but there was no time for celebration yet.
Crossing the finish line heralded the start of another battle. With less than an hour to go for the K2 500m race, she had to recover fast to defend her title with partner Suzanne Seah.
Chen felt she could not let team-mate Seah down, as they were the defending champions. In an earlier interview, she said: "This is the first time that I will not be fresh for the K2 at the SEA Games. It's important to me (to do well) since I've been doing it for so many years and I don't want to let my partner down."
Expectations also came from the family and friends sitting in the stands, as all eyes were on Chen and Seah to retain their title on home soil.
"It was actually quite pressuring knowing that everyone's down to support you, and you can't really block them out as you do in other countries," she said.
But, when the time came for the K2, Chen battled her nerves.
She and Seah pooled their strength with synchronised strokes in the final K2 race, in a close fight with Thailand.
The duo won by a narrow margin - 0.62 second. But it was enough to take the third gold of the day, and complete a clean sweep of the day's women's canoe medals.
"We lost to them (Thailand) once in the Asian Games, we came seventh and they came sixth. So it was a very nerve-racking experience... It was not an easy win like the K1," said Seah.
Perhaps it was all the eventual release of the pent-up pressure and emotions that resulted in Chen breaking down in tears of joy as she stepped onto the winners' podium to receive her second medal of the day.
The day's other gold came in the K4 race where Chen's younger sister Sarah partnered Geraldine Lee, Annabelle Ng and Soh Sze Ying to finish two seconds ahead of the Thailand team, who clocked 1min 41.586sec.
Yesterday's stellar performance took the national canoeing team's gold tally to five - their best performance at the SEA Games in 10 years. In 2013, the team fell short of their gold-medal target, winning only two out of the expected three.
Despite having three to four weeks of race simulation to prepare Chen for yesterday's race schedule, her partner Seah admitted that she was worried that they would not be able retain their title in the K2 500m.
"This time Steph had a K1 before (the K2) so I was a bit scared. But she is a superwoman and I had faith in her, that she would bring us through to the finish line," she said.
With Chen beaming and her right arm over Seah, the kayaker was in a celebratory mood. It will not be for long, however, as the pair will return to the waters today for their final K2 200m race.
But for now, she can afford a smile.
This article was first published on June 09, 2015.
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