SEA Games: S'pore's new track star

She's only 17 and on track to becoming a regional athletics star. Just last month at the Taiwan Open Athletics Championships in Taipei City, Mumbai-born Smriti Menon and her 4x100m relay sprintmates broke the Singapore national record twice - 46.44 seconds in the heats and shaving off another 0.26sec with 46.18, when they finished third behind Thailand (45.42) and Indonesia (45.88).

This month, she is looking forward to being part of a rare breed of Indians wearing Singapore colours in the SEA Games as it comes to town from June 5 to 16, after a 22-year hiatus. Singapore last hosted the biennial Games in 1993.

"I feel very honoured to be given the opportunity to don Singapore colours in such a prestigious competition, as the anchor (last leg runner) in the 4x100m relay," she says. "I must admit we have a tall order for the SEA Games relay medal. Thailand is fancied as they won the gold at the 2013 SEA Games. But believe me, we're going to give it our best shot before the home fans, and if we get our baton-passing right, anything can happen. We can pull off a big surprise."

With a fiery, disciplined tone in her voice, the teenager notes: "Through all my years of training I've learnt that nothing is achieved without hard work. There definitely is blood, sweat and tears but it is all worth it when you achieve the goals you set for yourself.

"Until last September I still wasn't able to run a sub 13sec for 100m in any of my competitions and it really started to bother me. I remember after my run in the Singapore Open 2014, I ran a 13.2sec and I was so disappointed with myself and just could not understand why I wasn't able to run below 13sec even after training hard.

"I almost felt like giving up. Then came the Singapore Under-23 Open where I told myself to just apply all that I had learnt in training, and to do my best. I came in second in that 100m race, running 12.78sec. I had finally broken the 13sec barrier!"

Sports and dance

Smriti comes from a family with interests in sports and dance.

"My maternal grandfather excelled in school athletics and swimming. My mother took part in running races in Mumbai school-relay competitions and my father is still active doing half-marathons here.

In general, we enjoy sports as a family and this has encouraged me to take athletics seriously."

Her father, Mr Mahesh Menon, 47, is president of the cotton division at Olam International. He and his wife, Prasanna, 42, a homemaker, hail from Chittur in Kerala's Palakkad district. He recalls: "Smriti, our only child, was very hyperactive, somersaulting on beds at five,

and we maximised her early highly-energised potential. She now trains very hard and, over the last one year, she has developed into a rising international sprinter. We're very proud of her."

Smriti, who arrived in Singapore when she was six months old, also has a natural flair for the classical bharatanatyam dance, which she says has helped her in her sport.

"My mother was also an avid bharatanatyam dancer and I guess the passion for this dance form has been passed down. I started when I was seven but had a few breaks in between as I changed teachers. Bharatanatyam has definitely made me stronger, which does help with sports. The various postures in bharatanatyam strengthen many muscles like the quads."

According to her, bharatanatyam has the same benefits as another ancient exercise form, yoga, if followed correctly. It reduces body fat and strengthens muscles and vital organs like the heart and lungs. The steps are designed to strengthen the back, abdomen and pelvic floor muscles and help in easing backache, she says.

"I will encourage every teenager to pick up the classical dance as the steps will improve flexibility of the body and increase muscle and joint strength, which are very important if you're intending to pursue other forms of sports, as I did with competitive athletics."

The ultimate dream of a teenage classical dancer is to do the arangetram (the debut onstage performance) and the Grade 11 student at Overseas Family School, an international school, has set her mind on doing it after her International Baccalaureate exams, "perhaps the end of next year".

Football dreams

Aside from athletics, the 1.63m, 49kg athlete says she fancied football earlier and still remains a devoted Chelsea (English Premier League champion) fan. She says: "I started cross country in Grade 2 in school but it was never a serious interest then. In 2009, I began weekly training for both athletics with Mona Kunalan (a personal trainer who ran in four SEA Games in the 1990s) and football with JSSL (a football school).

"Mona then suggested that I start taking athletics more seriously as she saw that I had the potential. She recommended me to (current coach) Melvin Tan. Under Melvin and with the support of his Wings Athletics Club, I began training more often. I played football for five years, and I was the captain of the girls' team.

"Last year I decided to discontinue football and focus on athletics as I believed I had more opportunities. I used to be a Chelsea fan but stopped watching football after the matches (close to midnight every weekend) got too late for me."

Track inspirations

Smriti praises her early track inspirations - Mona and Melvin - for believing in her longer-term potential.

"Melvin always inspires me to do my best but, more importantly, to always come back strong after a bad race. That's the fighting spirit I have, to never give up and to be better tomorrow, by preparing mentally and physically, in order to give every race the very best shot."

Smriti, whose hobbies include dancing, reading and listening to music, especially Punjabi music, feels Wings Athletics Club, her first local club, is special. She says: "I'm extremely fortunate to be part of the club as they've supported me in many races. I've been able to participate in many of the local competitions and I've also made many friends through the club. The club has opened me up to the Singaporean athletics community."

Mona, 42, the daughter of legendary sprint champion C. Kunalan, who ran at the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games, describes Smriti as an "exceptionally gifted sprinter, who's very enthusiastic to reach the top". She adds: "I trained her when she was nine, for about four years, and I could see she has the 'fire in the belly' to be a champion. I immediately recommended her to Melvin, a specialist sprint coach, for more intensive training."

Even though Smriti excels in the 4x100m relay, "my pet event is the 100m". Her personal best is 12.3sec and she looks forward to competing in the 200m as well, perhaps after the SEA Games.

Melvin, 48, who has been intensively coaching Smriti for three years, describes her as a "hardworking and motivated sprinter who can hit Asian competitive levels". He adds: "She has very quick legs and with more serious strength training, she can make it, given more international exposure against her global contemporaries."

Smriti recently competed in the SEA Youth Championship in Malaysia and the Asian Youth Championship in Doha, Qatar.

"I have qualified for the World Youth athletics meet in Cali, Colombia, and the Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa this year, so I want to focus on getting a personal best in these competitions and make Singapore proud," she says. "In the future, I would like to continue athletics even in my university years and, hopefully, still be able to represent Singapore."

Flying high

For the moment, the teenager feels she's flying high - in school, dance and running.

"I would say that for now I'm doing fine academically. It is getting quite difficult to balance both my studies and training but it just means that I need to manage my time well to ensure that I have enough time to study after training, but that I still get enough rest," she says.

Her longer-term career goal is to be a veterinarian as she "really loves animals, except insects!".

"After I finish high school, I would like to study veterinary medicine in Melbourne, Australia. I want to work as a veterinarian in organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund. I really want to go to Melbourne University because it has a very high repute as a track and field institution, which has produced many Australian Olympic, Commonwealth and World Championship medallists. I prefer Australia because it is closer to home than the US or Britain," she says.

With success comes plenty of sacrifices and Smriti knows the importance of discipline and dedication to be a potential world-beater.

She says: "Athletes like me have to pay a big price and in my case, it is the time to spend with family and friends. I only get to spend time with them during the weekends because on weekdays, I have serious track training, followed by school work."

She believes Singapore Athletics (SA), the parent body for track and field, has got its longer-term goals on the right starting blocks. "The management has been super supportive of athletes, providing us with many opportunities to compete both locally and internationally. The SA is now looking more athlete-centric, with administrators who have no baggage, are transparent and fair to deserving athletes who wish to pursue a track career," she says.

"As a youth athlete, I think that taking part in so many major competitions allows us to perform even better because we learn to overcome the nerves and focus on our own races."

At the end of the day, Smriti knows that she has to set her priorities and find a balance between her studies and athletics.

"Yes, in sports we all would like to be at the top, winning medals and all but I always remind myself that in the future, what I'm going to treasure will be the friendships I've made, lessons I've learned, and the feeling of glory when wearing Singapore colours," she says.


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