Unusual love story: Singaporean's romance with Philippine track queen Lydia de Vega

Athletics brought Jacter Singh and Lydia de Vega together. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF JACTER SINGH

SINGAPORE - He was a Sikh from Singapore. She was a Catholic from the Philippines. Theirs is an unusual love story.

Athletics brought them together and for 17 years, they lived together in a flat in Yishun.

On Wednesday (Aug 17) night, Mr Jacter Singh returned to Singapore after attending Ms Lydia de Vega's funeral.

The former national long-distance running champion was in Manila for a week to bid adieu to a fellow athlete he had known since 1979 and was his long-time partner.

It is little known that the Singaporean and the Filipina track legend - once hailed as Asia's fastest woman and one of the Philippines' most-decorated athletes - were living together in Singapore till April.

"I was in shock and cried when her daughter (professional volleyball player Stephanie de Koenigswarter) called me at 9pm on Aug 10 and told me Lydia (aged 57) was gone," Jacter, 61, said.

"It took me a while to accept that she was no longer around.

"She had breast cancer for four years and became weak in April. She wanted to go back to Manila and be with her family. But, before she left, she told me she would be back. It was not to be."

Mr Singh's unlikely romance with Ms de Vega began in 1979, when they met at the Asean Schools Track and Field Championships in Singapore.

The 18-year-old Sikh saw a stunning 15-year-old Filipina sprinter and wanted to say hello. But he froze when the long-limbed girl was ready for a chat.

Mr Singh wondered what the lithe beauty saw in him. But the tete-a-tete was the beginning of a touching bond between an innocent girl from the Philippines and a boy who hailed from a conservative family.

"We became an item for six years before we split," said Mr Singh.

Ms de Vega married engineer-entrepreneur Paul Mercado in 1990 and they had three children - including son John Michael who died in a car accident in February 2001 at the age of four. The couple divorced in 2003.

Mr Singh married a Singaporean traditional Sikh girl in 1988. They had a son and divorced in 2003. His former wife and son now live overseas.

"I guess Lydia and I were destined to meet and forge a long relationship," said Mr Singh.

"We were in touch and decided to get back together after our failed marriages."

Athletics brought Jacter and Lydia together and for 17 years, they lived together in a flat in Yishun. PHOTO: JACTER SINGH

Mr Singh had at the time changed his name from Jagtar as he believed it would improve his luck, be it in health, romance or finance.

"Lydia moved to Singapore in 2005 and we lived together as a loving couple. We did things together, we made decisions together. I would discuss everything with her," he said.

"We have a lot of similarities and she wanted to be with me. She is Catholic and I am Sikh, but we respected each other's religions. I would go to church with her and she would pray at the temple with me. We did not put restrictions on each other."

According to Mr Singh, "everybody in the athletic fraternity knew of our relationship".

"My parents initially objected but they soon accepted us," he added.

"Both our families and friends supported us. She was well-liked. My friends, relatives, all were fond of her."

Mr Singh described Ms de Vega as "simple and down to earth".

"She was a gem, a beautiful person in and out," he said.

"She never talked bad about others. She was always positive. She did all the chores at home without complaining. We went out with friends but she liked to spend time with me at home.

"We used to fly to Kuala Lumpur or take a bus to Melaka to meet relatives. She loved it here in Singapore. Everyone had good things to say about her. She was jovial and fun."

Jacter described Lydia as "simple and down to earth". PHOTO: JACTER SINGH

Ms de Vega retired from her athletics career in 1994 and coached children in the Philippines. After moving to Singapore, she was a coach at Mr Singh's JS Athletics Academy.

"She used to coach a lot of students in Singapore," said Mr Singh.

"Many would ask her advice on the right technique to adopt. She was unassuming and never gave the impression that she was a sprint queen."

Tall, slim and with movie star looks, Ms de Vega drew hordes of adoring fans. But it was her consistent performance on the track that turned her into a sensation.

She dominated the 200m in the 1983 and 1987 SEA Games, and ruled the 100m in the 1987, 1991 and 1993 SEA Games. Her time of 11.28 seconds in the 100m - set in 1987 - is still a Games record.

Ms de Vega won two Asian Games 100m golds in 1982 and 1986, and competed at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics.

Her legendary rivalry with Indian track and field athlete P.T. Usha made Ms de Vega a household name in Asia.

Lydia de Vega (left) edging out Malaysian rival G. Shanti to win the 200m gold at the 1993 SEA Games in Singapore. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mr Singh, who was the national record holder in the 5,000m from 1983 to 1995 and won the SEA Games 10,000m bronze in 1983, went to Manila on Aug 11 to be at Ms de Vega's wake and funeral.

"People from all walks of life, including VIPs, turned up at her wake and funeral," he said.

"I have only fond memories of her after all these years. I will never forget somebody like her.

"I will miss her dearly. She was a beautiful runner and person. I feel like there's nothing left already. It looks like the journey ends here."

Jacter Singh attended Lydia de Vega’s funeral in the Philippines. PHOTO: JACTER SINGH

In June, Mr Singh went to see Ms de Vega in Manila and stayed with her for 10 days. In July, when her hair was shaved off, he was with her for four days. He also visited her from July 20 to Aug 1.

"I was supposed to go to Manila again on Aug 26 to be with her," said Mr Singh. "But her condition deteriorated.

"It is tragic because the last time we spoke in July, I told her: 'You fight, don't give up.' She said she would fight till the end.

"She wanted to come back to Singapore. She told her doctor here and my 90-year-old dad that she would be back in three months. But it was not to be.

"The last thing she told me was that I should take care of myself. I never expected that she would go so soon."

This article first appeared in tabla!

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