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Commentary: Shanti Pereira’s Asian Games success offers lessons for all Singaporeans

HANGZHOU: Where were you when Shanti Pereira stormed to gold at the Asian Games on a cool Hangzhou night?

On the sofa? In the train? At the dinner table?

Glued to the television? Staring at your phone?

Were you not inspired? Were you not moved? Oh, what a night it was.

At the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium on Monday (Oct 2), Pereira clocked 23.03s to win the women’s 200m final at the Asian Games. This was Singapore’s first athletics gold medal since 1974, when Chee Swee Lee won the women’s 400m.

Days before, Pereira ended Singapore’s nearly 50-year wait for a track and field medal at the Asian Games, after she clinched a silver in the women’s 100m.

After a feat like this, it is time to take stock. For as we look back on Pereira’s success, there are takeaways for us as well.

THE NEED FOR STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEMS

An athlete stands on the podium alone, but it is never just an individual endeavour but the collective effort of a support system.

As I am often told by athletes and officials alike – it takes a village.

In Pereira’s case – it was her family, her coach, and her boyfriend among others.

“These have been the people that have stuck with me through it all, and just never stopped believing in me, even though I might have stopped believing in myself maybe at certain periods of time,” Pereira told me in Hangzhou.

The need for parental support cannot be emphasised enough. 

Take, for example, Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling and the unwavering commitment of his parents Colin and May, who spared no effort and resources supporting their son as he chased his big dream.

Take, for example, 2021 badminton world champion Loh Kean Yew’s parents Grace and Pin Keat, who backed their son’s decision to pursue his passion full-time.

Another big factor in Pereira’s success is her coach Luis Cunha, a man spoken highly of by his charges.

Having the right guidance makes a big difference.

“He’s the one that who helped me realise my potential and helped me change my perspective, when it comes to just racing and competing,” added Pereira.

Pereira isn’t the only track and field athlete who has shone at the Games.

Sprinter Marc Brian Louis broke a longstanding national record in the 100m, while there have been several season’s best performances from the athletics contingent.

It is no coincidence that such performances have followed a stability in the leadership of the National Sports Association.

Since the new Singapore Athletics (SA) leadership took the helm in 2020, there has been a clear change in the fortunes of the sport. The team delivered 11 medals at the SEA Games that were held in Vietnam last year and followed that up with a haul of 10 medals at the May SEA Games. In comparison, they had three medals in the 2019 edition.

With the right support systems, we set our athletes up for success.

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BE PATIENT WITH TALENT, RECOGNISE RESILIENCE

Form fades, and memories are short. We are quick to write off athletes, but it is important to remember every individual’s trajectory is different.

Pereira first burst into the nation’s consciousness at the 2015 SEA Games when she took gold in the 200m, clocked a personal best and set a new national record. Her win also ended a 42-year gold medal drought for Singapore in a Games sprint event.

But with it came the enormity of expectations. And as the years stretched on, self-doubt crept in, along with two injuries in 2018 and the loss of two scholarships within a week of each other.

As Pereira struggled, the negativity and self-doubt grew. Some people began to write her off, and she almost did too.

It is important Singapore recognises that winning does not guarantee continued success. This applies not just to the public, but also to the organisations that support athletes with funding and resources.

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Some athletes take time to search for consistency. Take Loh, who surprised everyone when he took the BWF World Championships in Huelva but has not won a title since then.

Then he was an unheralded world number 22; now he is a decorated world number nine in search of consistency and his better self. It takes time, so give him time.

Expectations get bigger, pressure gets heavier, and life gets stranger. Some get to the top and stay there. Others take years to get there and finally make a breakthrough.

With time often comes maturity. This was the case with Pereira who learnt to run fast and free.

Every success speaks of a different journey and patience can eventually reap rewards.

Pereira’s journey is one of perseverance and persistence. Over the years, injuries struck, scholarships were rescinded, people talked. She may have doubted herself, but she never gave up.

So, celebrate Pereira’s gold, but also her journey. Remember the 23.03s it took her to arrive at the top of the podium, but don’t forget the marathon it took for her to get there.

Matthew Mohan is a correspondent at CNA. He specialises in sports reporting and has covered the Olympics, World Cup and Southeast Asian Games.

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