Singapore volleyball captain Quek Soo Teng remembers clearly the night her team won their first international game - the first bright note after a year of aimless training.
The match against an Indonesian team at the 2013 Indonesia Cup began at one in the morning, a time which they were usually ready to dive into bed.
Against all their expectations and weary selves, they won and eventually finished third in the competition - their first-ever podium appearance.
"Previously, we went out onto court and usually met a swift death. But from that competition on, we finally saw the fruits of our labour," said Quek, grinning at her recollection of that pivotal moment, in spite of her usual serious self during the interview.
Yet that turning point was buried under the weight of bad history, and lives on only as a memory held close to the volleyball players' hearts - a beacon of hope after a long struggle in the shadow of more successful sports like swimming and table tennis.
This SEA Games, however, the players hope to notch their first win in a high-profile regional competition and prove that the sport has a future.
Said the 28-year-old Quek: "We believe it's time for us to shine. Our few minutes in the spotlight is the showcase of our three years of hard work."
There are no records of the men's national team's last appearance in the Games, but it has been 10 years since the women's team participated in the biennial meet.
"We are sending the team to the SEA Games to show the volleyball community that there is talent in Singapore," said team manager Vincent Lim.
Nevertheless, few expect any medals from the sport. In fact, Team Singapore chef de mission Tan Eng Liang said just three weeks ago: "All we expect of them is not to be last."
Nevertheless, the players are heartened as ordinary people have shelled out $10 and snapped up all the tickets to their games - a sign, perhaps, of the community rallying behind the team.
"I was taken aback by the speed at which the tickets sold out, but all the kids whom I coach wanted to go - that's the excitement in the community that I want to see," said player Joelle Lim, 22.
Small, but encouraging steps - that's what the national volleyballers are grateful for.
From those rock-bottom times when only two players show up for training, now all 12 members train each day, wearing sponsored jerseys and shoes as they brush up their skills at St Hilda's Secondary School and Temasek Polytechnic.
Quek recalled: "There was a time when requests for basic apparel were turned down because of funding issues, and some of us struggled with commitment because we didn't feel recognised."
For these Games, the women need to beat Myanmar to enter the semi-finals and secure Singapore a bronze, which would be their first medal since 1981.
But the men face a tougher task against Indonesia and Vietnam.
National coach Akihiko Narita believes that there is a 50-50 chance that the women will do well, as their exposure to international teams remains limited.
"The players are motivated by the support from the association and upping their game. If they keep going, we may have strong medal chances in two to three years," he said.
For the women's team, after all those bleak years, all they need to keep going is a little faith from their coach, their association and their fans.
This article was first published on June 1, 2015.
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