It was not just her dyed blonde hair that made swimmer Tao Li stand out yesterday. Her porcelain-white complexion also brought about some teasing from several of her tanned national team-mates.
"Why are you wearing make-up today?" was one joke that made the rounds at her expense, during the launch of the Singapore Swimming Association's (SSA) Swim With Us campaign at Kallang Wave Mall, to drum up support ahead of the SEA Games in June.
"It's too cold to swim outdoors in winter," lamented the 25-year-old Tao, who has spent the past five months training in China but returned on Friday.
She will be competing in the Singapore National Age Group Swimming Championships - the third and final SEA Games qualifying meet - starting with the 50m butterfly on Wednesday.
While she has already qualified for her pet event at the SEA Games thanks to her silver (50m fly in 26.28sec) and bronze (100m fly in 59.08) medals at last year's Asian Games, the championships will be Tao's only chance to earn a spot in the backstroke events.
Based in Kunming to undergo high-altitude training, Tao has been working on her endurance, swimming over 10km each day as she builds up her fitness.
The explosiveness is still there, she maintained, as the two-time Asiad gold medallist was greeted with warm hugs from members of the local swimming fraternity who had gathered for the ceremonial unveiling of the new SSA logo at Kallang Wave Mall.
The logo, called the Red Lions (coincidentally the name of the SAF parachute team), will be used by all five aquatic disciplines - diving, swimming, synchronised swimming, water polo and open water swimming - under the SSA, which is among the first major national sports associations to hold a mass event to engage the public ahead of the June 5-16 Games.
Said its president Lee Kok Choy: "We hope to make sure that every seat at the OCBC Aquatic Centre is filled as we get behind our athletes and we must make this home advantage count."
Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin, who is also the Singapore National Olympic Council's president, praised the initiative and encourage the public to rally behind all national athletes when the Games get under way in June.
With swimming expected to deliver the bulk of the medals, Tao was hopeful of a racuous home crowd as she tries to add to her 23 SEA Games gold medals and is targeting seven events (50 and 100 fly, 50 and 100 back, as well as the three team relays).
The veteran of five Games said: "I want to get as many golds as I can for Singapore. And also to share my experiences with the next batch of young swimmers."
Getting some extended talk-time with Tao will be difficult though as the Hubei native intends to return to her base after this week's championships to continue her training. She will sit down with the SSA to discuss her schedule but is unlikely to join the national squad undergoing centralised training with head coach Sergio Lopez until closer to the SEA Games.
Not that the Spaniard, who slotted into the role in January, minds. He said: "She has a programme that she's comfortable with so I'm happy to let her continue with it.
"She's a world-class swimmer and honestly, I don't have to worry about her."
This article was first published on March 15, 2015.
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