While all eyes have been on Mok Ying Ren and Soh Rui Yong as they fought to become the first Singapore marathoner to qualify for the Olympics, an unheralded female runner has beaten the duo to the start line.
Neo Jie Shi, a 30-year-old human resource and admin assistant manager, won the women's local category at last month's Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore with a time of 3hr 15min and 06sec.
The Singapore race is officially rated an International Association of Athletics Federations' (IAAF) Gold Label Marathon - the highest - and even though Neo's time is more than 30 minutes off the 2016 Rio Olympics' entry standard of 2:45:00, her effort saw her finish 10th in the women's Open category.
The IAAF qualification and entry standards state that: "... the top 10 finishers at the IAAF Gold Label Marathons in 2015 and 2016 (held during the qualification period of Jan 1, 2015 to July 11, 2016) will also be considered as having achieved the entry standard."
Neo told The New Paper: "This is quite unexpected news as I didn't know about the qualifying standards.
"I'm humbled by this opportunity to represent Singapore at the Olympics and I want to thank all my training partners over the years.
"I just want to do my best and enjoy the journey ahead. I also hope my experience can be an inspiration for other up-and-coming runners."
Singapore Athletics president Tang Weng Fei confirmed the good news yesterday and revealed their plans along the road to Rio.
He said: "After checking with IAAF, we have informed Jie Shi that she has technically qualified for Rio and we have assigned our vice-president for training and selection, C Kunalan, to talk to her and work out a training plan.
"We have also informed the Singapore National Olympic Council that we are supporting her entry, and they will be the ones who will submit Singapore's entries to the local organising committee, which in this case is Rio.
"I believe Jie Shi's qualification sends a strong signal of our progress in road races. These are interesting times for distance runners, with Rui Yong going full-time, and the public taking to road races actively."
Since her first marathon -the Standard Chartered race in 2007 - the sport has provided Neo with some of the best moments in her life.
After joining the Jurong Safra Running Club, she got to know her future husband Jackie Ho, who was with Mount Faber Safra Running Club and encouraged her run competitively.
The couple registered their marriage last October.
Last year, at the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon, she clocked her personal best of 3:09:57 to qualify for this year's South-east Asia Games on home soil and finished eighth.
The 2016 Olympics will be held in Rio from Aug 5 to 21.
Speaking to TNP yesterday, Kunalan said: "We are looking at some high-level marathon coaches from overseas to train Jie Shi before the Olympics.
"After she completes a half-marathon in Hong Kong on Sunday, we will also put her through some tests at the Singapore Sports Institute and tailor her training plan accordingly to improve her time."
Neo thinks that it will be tough to beat Yvonne Danson's national record of 2:34:41 set at the 1995 SEA Games, and she is after a new personal best.
This article was first published on January 12, 2016.
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