Years of quiet toil reap gold at last

Years of quiet toil reap gold at last
Singapore's Teo Shun Xie celebrates after winning the women's 10m air pistol shooting event at Barry Buddon shooting centre at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, July 25, 2014.

On July 28, at 3pm, when Teo Shun Xie walked out of Changi Airport, having single-handedly registered Singapore on the medal table in Glasgow with a first gold, having made us feel sportingly relevant, having shoved aside an entire Commonwealth with her skill, this is apparently how many fans were waiting for her.

None.

Of course, her parents were present. One of her brothers. Shooting officials.

Her coach Dina Aspandiyarova, who tutors her with her husband Anatoly Babushkin and arrived with flowers. But no crowd, no reporters, no banners, no cheers from admiring strangers.

Just so you know.

Just so you also know that she won her 10m air pistol gold on July 25, was fifth in the 25m air pistol the next day, returned home on the 28th and was back at work as a research officer at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology on the 29th.

No fuss, no fanfare. Still, on the institute's website, a tiny ticker quietly announces her victory.

Even scientists evidently are impressed by this shooting engineer.

Just so you know that Teo, born 25 years ago in Mount Elizabeth Hospital, doesn't mind her anonymity, scarcely cares that no one's ever asked for her autograph.

She's a shooter: parades aren't their style, flamboyance isn't their code. Smile spreading over shy face, she says: "I don't like too much attention."

No, she prefers to "hide" in her room with her bird Pipi. And then come out to a range and confront "the challenge" to her concentration, where every shot must be a piece of precise beauty and where every shot - on her best day - is straight enough to trim the toothpick sticking of your mouth from 33 feet.

We know shooting with its pfft, pfft, pfft isn't obviously sexy, we know standing still isn't poetic, yet it can't diminish the hard, unrelenting journeys that athletes like Teo make towards victory.

It's hard to hold a job and perform, to work all day and then take the MRT at 6pm from Buona Vista to Bishan, from Bishan to Yishun, walk 10 minutes to the Safra range, arrive at 7.30pm, practise till 9pm, then go home.

Every week. Every year. To the point where even Jasmine Ser, fellow shooter and Commonwealth Games champion, says: "It's her perseverance and commitment over the years that has shaped her to become a champion and she really deserves the medal."

It's hard translating practice form into medals, taking this leap of competitive faith, trusting skill amidst the cameras and chaos, and Teo struggles with this.

In 2011 she even thinks of giving up, for this juggling of work and passion is tough, this frustration of talent not turning into results is growing.

No gold from the SEA Games in 2009, 2011, 2013, no gold from the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

But this is what athletes do: they lose yet persist, fail yet push. And it is this mad, heroic, unreasonable belief that their day will come, that they will be more perfect than other perfect people on the perfect day, which makes sport so alluring.

It's hard, of course, to be perfect and at the range all we see is a woman holding a gun. What we can't see - she explains - are the variables at play.

Can't see the twitches and the roiling emotions within.

Can't see how precisely she must re-grip her pistol, can't see how meticulously she must place a finger on the trigger - all of it done to a millimetre perfection.

She is a human being, but in truth, she says, "You have to turn yourself into a robot. You can't go 'yeeaah' after a good shot. You can't even feel happy because then your heartbeat goes up" and you've misplaced your calm.

It's hard at the Commonwealth Games for while this is not quite shooting's most talented collection, Teo is still up against Heena Sidhu, the former world No.1.

So she plays Hay Day, the farming game, before the final, and if her fingers don't shake there, they do early on in the final, so much so that she has difficulty "loading a pellet".

Yet Teo, armed with a new pendant of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, has faith in a higher power but also in herself. So she listens.

To her coach Babushkin, who says "trust your technique". To her own voice which pleads, "you've come so far, keep your focus, don't give up".

And then it's over, the monitor in front of her highlights her name, she has won. "You go to training every day," says Teo, "you want to reap something." Some proof of effort, some manner of reward. "The medal," she says, "it's fantastic." And she grins.

Now she's back at work, on the MRT, perhaps standing next you, this woman who says "I still don't think I am a very good shooter".

Nevertheless, she will receive a cash award for her victory and I ask what she wants to buy.

"A cycle," she says.

And herein lies a tale.

In 1948, when the Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen returned home after winning four Olympic golds, her neighbours gave her a bicycle.

So that she could "go through life at a slower pace".

Maybe, for fun, we should do the same for Teo. Just so that a woman from a stationary sport can occasionally move at a faster pace. And just so that she also knows, famous or anonymous, we care.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

This article was published on Aug 3 in The Straits Times.


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