HANOI - Clutching the Singapore flag to her chest and wiping tears from her eyes, Shanti Pereira asked with quivering lips: “Real, right? This is real? Oh my god.”
The Republic’s sprint queen had just moments earlier on Saturday (May 14) pulled off an incredible win in the women’s 200m final at the My Dinh Stadium to capture her second SEA Games title seven years after her first.
Those seven years have been strewn with moments of self-doubt and scepticism and Pereira, 25, channelled them all into an inspired 23.52-second effort to cross the line ahead of the Philippines’ Kyla Ashley Richardson (23.56sec) and twin Kayla Anise Richardson (23.87sec) and capture gold again after two consecutive bronze medals at the biennial Games.
Pereira’s time also meant she rewrote her national record of 23.60sec, which she had set during that 2015 SEA Games win in Singapore and had toiled unsuccessfully to lower until Saturday.
Upon seeing her record-setting time on the clock at the finish line – which also confirmed her gold medal – Pereira was floored and began bawling her eyes out on the track.
She could not stop sobbing even as Singapore Athletics’ team official Akid Chong handed her the national flag to celebrate with.
After asking The Straits Times if she had really pulled off the improbable, she eventually composed herself enough to reflect on her race.
Voice still trembling, Pereira said that she “had so many mental barriers... to break in order to reach this place”.
Later, after a tearful medal presentation ceremony, she told ST: “This one required a lot of struggles.
“I’ve been through a lot in the past seven years. It’s been tough, I’m not going to lie, especially in the past two years, where there has been a lot of self-doubt.
“There was pressure from myself and from around me that made me think I wasn’t good enough to be at that standard anymore. And I kind of let it eat into me, which made the whole process even worse.
“It took me a while to figure it out, but ultimately I told myself, ‘You know what? All that doesn’t matter’.
“I have people who believe in me, people who matter, and that’s really all that counts.”
Among them are her parents, Clarence and Jeet Pereira, who had travelled to Hanoi to show their support. Pereira said she had embraced them in the stands at My Dinh.
“They also cried lah, everyone is just bawling,” she said with a hearty laugh.
Her coach, Luis Cunha, said the key to her victory was her “not panicking” in the last 50 metres, even as Kyla pushed her hard.
“She was not able to do that on several occasions this season, but fortunately she was able to today,” he added.
The usually impassive Portuguese coach admitted he was moved by Pereira’s win, and added: “When you embrace a career as a coach, your goal is to help athletes and when you have the luck to support athletes who have the talent to deliver proud moments like this for a country, it is a blessing.”
Pereira first shot to fame in 2013 when, a month shy of turning 17, she became the first Singaporean woman to run the 100m under 12 seconds.
After that, she enjoyed highs - winning a historic gold in the 200m at the 2015 home SEA Games - and also suffered lows, such as a tearful and unsuccessful defence of her title in Kuala Lumpur in 2017, before a season-ruining injury a year later.
Infighting and politicking within Singapore Athletics - the sport's national body - then, which affected Pereira and her former coach Margaret Oh, as well as niggling injuries saw some write her off as being past her best.
She proved them all wrong with her Hanoi triumph.
“In 2015, I was just a young girl, happy to be running at home, and I had a lot of good vibes from the crowd,” she said.
“I didn’t get that this time, so I required good vibes from other places.
“I grew a lot, from my very first SEA Games in 2013, and learnt from so many different experiences which have shaped me into the athlete I am today.”
Asked if she had a message to her doubters, she replied with a grin: “I’m still here. I ain’t going nowhere.”
That, you can be sure, is real.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.