Fastest man's slow rise to the top

The common thread among the 309 Myanmar-bound Singapore athletes for the Dec 11-22 SEA Games is the journey of self-discovery they all embarked on to find out how good they are in their chosen sports.

The Straits Times will be tracing some of these athletes' journeys from their beginnings as diamonds in the rough to being well-trained competitors ready to battle for gold medals.

GARY YEO

THEN (2000) & NOW (2013)

FOR A man whose career is defined by seconds, it is not surprising that national sprinter Gary Yeo demands instant results.

A man this fast - 10.44sec over 100 metres - also expects everything else to be.

When he text messages his friends, he demands a reply within a minute. When he clicks on an Internet link, he demands that it loads instantly.

Cut across him on the roads, and one risks triggering that fiery temper of his - which is infamous among his close friends.

But, as the 27-year-old embarks on what could be his breakthrough SEA Games in Myanmar, he will be the first to admit that not everything can be achieved in a flash.

That is because his own track career was built over years of toil and rejection before it began to blossom.

Even as a pupil at St Andrew's Junior School, he knew what he wanted to be.

"I was never the tallest boy, but I wanted to be the fastest," he recalled.

But he was not among the fastest in his school. In fact, he never caught the eye of the school team selectors, and ended up spending most of his recess time kicking a plastic ball around.

When he entered Victoria School, he joined a talent scouting programme during his Secondary One initiation camp, hoping again to make the track squad.

He remembers running the 100m time-trial on a tarmac road. Again, he was overlooked. Said Yeo: "All along my thinking was that I was quite fast. So, when I didn't make it, I was quite disappointed."

He was, however, chosen for the hockey squad with whom he trained for a year.

As fate would have it, his closest friends in class happened to be on the track squad, and so he was encouraged to join their training sessions, but only as a recreational athlete.

And, after some supervised training, Yeo's track talents started to show.

In his first inter-school outing at the 2000 Schools National Track and Field Championships, he finished fourth in the C Division boys' 100m.

Over the next few years, he achieved considerable success, taking the A Division double (100m and 200m) in 2003, and knocking on the door of the national squad.

At 19, he first made the national 4x100m team as a reserve runner. Said Yeo: "I was just happy to have made the team.

"From then on, I started chasing people.

"I figured that, if I could keep up with what the top sprinters could do during training, then I could be at their levels during competitions."

That chase lasted six years until 2011 when, at the age of 25, he finally sprinted to the forefront of the national team and established himself as the fastest man in Singapore.

In the middle of that year, he clocked then-personal bests of 10.61 and 21.64 in the 100m and 200m races respectively.

But he was not satisfied. He still wanted to be faster, so he sat down with his coach Melvin Tan to work on race strategy.

He said: "Before that, I simply went all out in every race.

"But I realised that there was no point leading at the 40m or 60m marks. I didn't just want to have a better start. I wanted to have a better result at the end."

It worked. At that year's Indonesia SEA Games in December, Yeo clocked 10.46 to take silver in the 100m dash. It was Singapore's first SEA Games medal in the blue-riband event in 10 years.

Said the runner, who finished behind Indonesia's Franklin Burumi, who came in at 10.37: "That race at Indonesia made me think that I could become the region's best."

A year later, Yeo proceeded to set a new personal best of 10.44 when he won at the ASEAN University Games in Laos.

This year, he and his 4x100m team-mates have their sights firmly fixed on the relay gold in Myanmar, after coming an agonising photo-finish away from top spot in Jakarta.

They have been training full-time all year, but things have not gone entirely well for Yeo, who suffered a left hamstring injury during July's Asian Athletics Championships in India.

The injury still persists. But Yeo, who had a month-long training stint in China under renowned coach Li Qing last month, is keeping positive.

He said: "Once I take this road, there is no regret. If I had to make this choice again, I would. "I'm keeping positive. I'm telling myself that, when it comes to the race, I would still be among the best."

Said Singapore Athletics Association's chief of sports development Loh Chan Pew: "Gary is a good fighter. I really hope that he can recover from his injury in time and I am confident that he will run a good race."

For someone who spent most of his life chasing the accolade of being the fastest, Yeo is now putting his 4x100m team's priorities ahead of his own, as captain of the squad.

He said: "Above all else, I think of the relay.

"It's a team event and sometimes as captain I feel responsible for the other athletes as well.

"After everyone's sacrifices, I feel that we must have something to show for."

ugenec@sph.com.sg


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