'I ain't going nowhere'

Pereira silences critics by winning her second 200m gold seven years after her first in 2015

Clutching the Singapore flag to her chest and wiping tears from her eyes, Shanti Pereira asked with quivering lips: "Real, right? This is real? Oh my God."

The Republic's sprint queen had just moments earlier pulled off an incredible win in the women's 200m final at the My Dinh Stadium to capture her second SEA Games title seven years after her first.

Those seven years have been strewn with moments of self-doubt and scepticism and Pereira, 25, channelled them all into an inspired 23.52-second effort to cross the line ahead of the Philippines' Kyla Ashley Richardson (23.56sec) and twin Kayla Anise Richardson (23.87sec) and capture gold again after two consecutive bronze medals at the biennial Games.

Pereira's time also meant she rewrote her national record of 23.60sec, which she had set during that 2015 SEA Games win in Singapore and had toiled unsuccessfully to lower until yesterday.

Upon seeing her record-setting time on the clock at the finish line, she was floored and began bawling her eyes out on the track.

She could not stop sobbing even as Singapore Athletics' team official Akid Chong handed her the national flag to celebrate with.

After asking The Sunday Times if she had really pulled off the improbable, she eventually composed herself enough to reflect on her race. Voice still trembling, Pereira said that she "had so many mental barriers... to break in order to reach this place".

Later, after a tearful medal presentation ceremony, she told ST: "This one required a lot of struggles. I've been through a lot in the past seven years.

"It's been tough, I'm not going to lie, especially in the past two years, where there has been a lot of self-doubt.

"There was pressure from myself and from around me that made me think I wasn't good enough to be at that standard any more. And I kind of let it eat into me, which made the whole process even worse.

"It took me a while to figure it out, but ultimately I told myself, 'You know what? All that doesn't matter'. I have people who believe in me, people who matter, and that's really all that counts."

Among them are her parents, Clarence and Jeet Pereira, who had travelled to Hanoi.

Pereira said she had embraced them in the stands.

"They also cried lah, everyone is just bawling," she said.

Her coach, Luis Cunha, said the key to her victory was her "not panicking" in the last 50 metres.

"She was not able to do that on several occasions this season, but she was able to today," he added.

The usually impassive Portuguese admitted he was moved by Pereira's win, and added: "When you embrace a career as a coach, your goal is to help athletes and when you have the luck to support athletes who have the talent to deliver proud moments like this for a country, it is a blessing."

Pereira first shot to fame in 2013 when, a month shy of turning 17, she became the first Singaporean woman to run the 100m under 12 seconds.

After that, she enjoyed highs - winning Singapore's first sprint gold medal at the SEA Games for 42 years in 2015 - and also suffered lows, such as an unsuccessful defence of her title two years later.

Infighting and politicking within Singapore Athletics then, which affected Pereira and her former coach Margaret Oh, as well as injuries, led some writing her off as being past her best.

She has proved them all wrong.

"In 2015, I was just a young girl, happy to be running at home, and I had a lot of good vibes from the crowd," she said.

"I didn't get that this time, so I required good vibes from other places.

"I grew a lot... and learnt from so many different experiences which have shaped me into the athlete I am today."

Asked if she had a message to her doubters, she replied: "I'm still here. I ain't going nowhere."

That, you can be sure, is real.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2022, with the headline 'I ain't going nowhere'. Subscribe