Nominee #2: Sprinter Shanti Pereira

Relaxation key to quicker times

Pivotal moment came two months before the SEA Games triumph

THE STRAITS TIMES ATHLETE OF THE YEAR PRESENTED BY 100 PLUS

It was race day at the National Stadium, and a scattered crowd had gathered on a hot afternoon, joined by a handful of cameras and a smattering of media.

Singapore sprinter Shanti Pereira went about her customary pre-race routine - a few short sprints, followed by a quick prayer. Except this time, something felt different.

Maybe it was the stadium's world-class Mondo track - the only one here - which produces less drag, so Shanti felt she could snap her feet up faster. But the change was also coming from within.

Gone was her obsession with cutting times and the frustration that had been building up over the past three months after each bad race.

This time, her mind was clear.

"I was so fixated with clocking personal bests, sometimes even on the starting blocks, that I couldn't run my race properly. But here I was fed up and decided not to care about times," said the 20-year-old.

ESTABLISHING PEACE OF MIND

I was so fixated with clocking personal bests, sometimes even on the starting blocks, that I couldn't run my race properly. But here I was fed up and decided not to care about times.

'SHANTI PEREIRA, explaining how her mindset changed, leading to a relaxed attitude that improved her times.

"I said to myself, 'Enough. Just go out there and run'."

This moment of clarity happened not at the SEA Games, but at the Singapore Open last April.

Then, there was no screaming home crowd, no prize money, no top regional runners - but it would set the stage for her heroics at the regional meet two months later.

Shanti's coach of seven years, Margaret Oh, explained: "She's not too bothered by winning or losing, but if she didn't run a good time or a good race, she'd keep thinking about it, become really quiet and not talk to people."

Before the Singapore Open, Shanti was anything but her usual bubbly self. She could not go under 12 seconds in the 100m, or 24 seconds in the 200m, and it vexed her no end.

The youngest of four children, she said: "Part of me knew I'd get faster. But it was frustrating waiting for (the improvement) to come."

Strategies come into play in her pet event, the 200m. For the first 80-90m, she has to "hug the curve", tilting her body inwards while going at 90 to 95 per cent of her maximum speed.

Once she hits the home straight, she has to straighten her posture and turn on the afterburners.

A cluttered mind disrupts her strategy.

Her relaxed mindset helped her win the 100m that day, in a national record of 11.8 seconds. A day later, she timed 24 seconds flat in her pet event, the 200m.

From the Singapore Open a different Shanti emerged. "Everything fell into place from then," she said.

Fast forward two months and she was back at the National Stadium. Again, she went about her usual pre-race routine, only this time, the stakes were much higher.

Three lanes to her right loomed the muscular silhouette of Filipino-American Kayla Richardson, who had outpaced her in the blue-riband 100m a day earlier when Shanti was third-best. The silver medallist, Thailand's Tassaporn Wannakit, was to her left.

But this was a different Shanti, one who had decluttered her mind at the starting blocks.

And she took off. The curve was controlled, exactly how she wanted it. Emerging from the bend ahead of the pack, she went full throttle for the finish line.

With 20m to go, Richardson was closing in. Shanti reached the finish line and dipped.

She won in a national record of 23.6 seconds. She also ended Singapore's 42-year wait for a sprint gold, after Glory Barnabas' win in the same event in 1973. That seminal moment at the home SEA Games earned her the nod as one of five nominees for The Straits Times' Athlete of the Year award.

"I've been imagining winning the SEA Games gold for a long time. It was a little surreal when it happened," said Shanti, whose sister is former national sprinter Valerie.

These days, she gets recognised by squealing primary school pupils asking for a hug or a selfie in her Tampines neighbourhood. Her number of Instagram followers swelled from 1,000 to more than 3,700.

Oh believes that her protege is set for another decade on the track and can go even faster with more weight training to increase her power.

At next year's SEA Games in Malaysia, the athlete wants to retain her 200m crown, and at least win a medal in the 100m. At the 2018 Asian Games, she wants to be in the 200m final.

Tall order? Sure. Except now Shanti knows how to do it: Just go out there and run.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Relaxation key to quicker times'. Print Edition | Subscribe