SINGAPORE - It would never have occurred to national equestrienne Caroline Chew a fortnight ago that she would be heading to the Tokyo Olympics next month.
But a last-minute withdrawal by New Zealand suddenly presented her with a chance to realise her Olympic dream and the 29-year-old seized it.
It did not matter that she had to travel from where she was based in Gloucestershire, England, to compete at the Dressage Grand Prix in Le Mans, France, where the New Zealand rider’s replacement would be decided, on such short notice.
When the time came to perform, Chew and her horse Tribiani registered a personal best of 69.674, surpassing the minimum requirement of 66 needed to qualify for the July 23-Aug 8 Games.
In doing so, she will become the first Singaporean to compete in equestrian at the Olympics.
“It’s still really surreal, this opportunity came up really unexpectedly," she said after placing 11th on Friday.
“The Olympics were so far removed at that point in time (two weeks ago), so it’s been a very whirlwind kind of last few weeks.”
Chew had been second in line to fill the vacated spot, but Malaysia’s Qabil Ambak, who was the first reserve, finished with a score of 64.000.
Apart from having to prepare for the competition in two weeks, Chew’s coach Matthew Frost was unable to travel with her from the United Kingdom as he was not fully vaccinated.
So her horse’s groom Rachel Stephens stood at the side of the arena and called Frost over Zoom, and he coached her over a WhatsApp call.
Chew said: “It was so bizarre, but thankfully it worked out really well.
“Because of the pandemic, he’s (Frost) done it a lot with his students so he knew the best positions to put the camera so that he could see as much as possible.”
Her first encounter with the Olympic movement was in 2010, when she walked out on to the Marina Bay floating platform to take a 53-word oath for the athletes at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.
But her Olympic dream crystallised about six years ago when she began competing on the European circuit.
She then went on to become the first Singaporean rider to compete at the Grand Prix level – the highest level of competition.
She also won silver in the dressage individual and team events at the 2015 SEA Games, as well as a bronze individual and team medal in the 2017 edition.
For the last four years, she has been juggling horse riding while working as a lawyer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in the United Kingdom.
While it sometimes gets tough, Chew is thankful to have a supportive work and equestrian team.
She added: “There are actually a lot of learning points that carry across. I’ve got a lot of discipline from riding and it puts me in situations that are unexpected sometimes or takes me out of my comfort zone and that’s really useful at work because it means that you get steadier under pressure.”
From multiple Paralympic medallist Laurentia Tan’s feats, to setting up the National Equestrian Centre in 2011 and now having its first Olympian, Chew’s mother Melanie, the Equestrian Federation of Singapore’s president from 2007 to 2017, believes the local equestrian scene has achieved significant progress.
She said: “There’s a feeling of having achieved something – we’ve also taken a big step for equestrian, we went from zero to the Olympic Games in under 20 years. Not to forget, we’ve built up a very strong para-equestrian team. Equestrian has come a long way.”
The Singapore contingent for the Tokyo Olympics is currently made up of 19 athletes, including Chew.
Besides Chew, Jonathan Chan will be the first local diver to compete at the quadrennial Games.
The Republic's fencers Kiria Tikanah Abdul Rahman and Amita Berthier are also the country's first to qualify on merit.