Athletics: Making great strides, as Shanti fulfils coach's prediction

Singapore's Shanti Pereira celebrates winning gold at the 28th SEA Games in Singapore.
Singapore's Shanti Pereira celebrates winning gold at the 28th SEA Games in Singapore.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - There is no balm more soothing to an athlete than a gold medal. Shanti Pereira needs no reminder, as she awakes in her hotel room on June 11, of her SEA Games 200m victory, her record and her place in Singapore's sporting history. Yet she looks instinctively to the table in front of her bed.

The gold medal is there, with her Nila and her bronze medal from the 100m. She gazes at the table as her mind rewinds to the previous night and how, in the space of just 23.60 seconds, she carved her own niche in the Republic's sporting history.

What does she think of when she seeas the gold medal on that table? Her reply is instantaneous. "It's there. This really happened."

But how it happened is a story worth telling, for it encompasses two other women as well, each with their own stake in the tale.

Om, Shanti. The ancient religious incantation of peace probably never had such sporting resonance. At the National Stadium, with the crowd in full voice, the sprinter has found her own personal "Om" moment - and on the other side of the track, her coach can sense it.

In the minutes before her 200m final on June 10, the athlete is strangely relaxed. Normally, she is tense, retreating into a cocoon of silence before a race. But tonight she is inexplicably at ease.

Beyond the finish line, her coach Margaret Oh sees it too. "She was confident," the coach says. "I saw it in her body language."

But the runner's race balance is not askew. Instead, she says, "I was soaking up the crowd's energy".

Watching this pre-race ritual unfold is Glory Barnabas, the last Singaporean woman sprinter to win gold in this event. Barnabas, who triumphed at the SEAP Games - the forerunner to the SEA Games - in 1973, sees her teenage compatriot as a medal contender.

She is not the only one. Oh's prediction is two SEA Games medals, but she cannot predict their colour.

It's race time. Unprompted, a powerful thought runs through the runner's mind. "This is your time," a voice tells her. In turn, she knows the appropriate answer is simply this: "I'm ready."

She assumes the familiar stance, and her gaze picks out "one small speck" of the lane in front of her. And now she focuses. Literally and metaphorically.

As she leaves the blocks, she knows it is the bend that will dictate her race. "Maintain your balance on the bend. Don't run too fast. Wait to come out of the bend and then it's a case of, 'Shanti, just run'."

Both Barnabas and Oh are watching her intently through the bend. Oh likes what she sees as her runner negotiates the bend in textbook fashion. Barnabas, too, is buoyed. "As she came out of the bend, I started to worry about her finish."

Pereira knows things are looking good at the moment. "I came out of the straight slightly in front. Now it was a case of go, go, go. Just run. I could hear the crowd, despite everything else that was happening around me. It was a case of, 'Oh, my God, OK'."

So where is her gaze now? As always, it is on the finish line, that clear white line on the Mondo track.

But with about 35m to go, her legs are feeling the strain. "I knew I was dropping off," she says.

This is the mind-over-matter moment. She says that she fervently wants to hear the notes of Majulah Singapura.

Now, this thought is what keeps her going, in the cruelest stage of the race, where the heart of the runner must be so comprehensively tested. On she drives, the supreme effort evident in the movement of head, arms and hips as the momentum starts to wane.

Yet now Oh knows the gold has been won. Should it come to a photo finish, Oh knows her runner will give it everything. "I've seen her go through moments of consternation at the 150m mark of a 200m race, but there was not a trace of that this time."

On the other hand, Barnabas is hopeful, but not quite as confident as Oh. The former champion is still aware that the podium places could come down to only the photographic evidence. She knows the feeling well. In 1973, even though she felt that she had won, she had to wait about an hour for official confirmation of her victory - an agonising period of limbo in which she even declined an interview with sports commentator Brian Richmond, cautioning him to wait until the announcement.

"I still felt (Pereira's race) could come down to a photo finish," she says. "I wondered if she would produce the decisive, desperate lunge to put her torso in front if challenged on the finish line."

The white line is within reach now. Pereira, aware that the crowd is going "insane", wins in 23.60sec, a personal best and national record.

Gold medallist and coach remember embracing, yet neither can recall what was said. "Perhaps she said, 'Coach, we did it'," ventures Oh.

Unusually, she does not take a selfie with the gold medal. But she does confess that she keeps looking at it in the bus on the way back to the hotel and then puts it, with her bronze medal, on the table in front of her bed, alongside her Nila mascots, before she goes to sleep that night.

Like Barnabas, before day's end she watches her race footage, to get a different, camera's-eye perspective of how it unfolded. In 1973, Barnabas was shown the race tape by Richmond and her sense of wonderment is echoed by Pereira when she views her own film clip on her phone. "Having witnessed the race through my own eyes and my own perception, when I watch the clip, my reaction is, 'Oh, my God, really?"

Her path to glory has taken years, yet it spans only 200m. Or perhaps that should be her path to Glory.