TOKYO - Precariously perched on the balance beam inside an almost empty arena in Tokyo on Sunday (July 25) morning, Singaporean gymnast Tan Sze En discovered there was more to her than before.
She was just seconds into her beam routine when she wobbled on her first flip and almost fell off the 10cm-wide apparatus. She kept her balance, but only just.
"I know in the past I would have just shut down after, and the whole routine would have been a mess," Tan told The Straits Times later.
"But I think I've grown so much as an athlete, and that allowed me to recover well, shut that (mistake) out and continue my routine as I had been doing in training."
Instead of a total collapse, the 20-year-old shrugged the stumble off and, with sequinned crescent moon and stars glittering on her red leotard, moments later executed a flawless twirl on the beam at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre.
Tan scored 11.033 for the routine, which followed an 11.833 she had scored for her floor exercise in the women's all-around qualification round. She passed on competing in the uneven bars and vault - the remaining two components of the all-around competition - because of a wrist injury that has bugged her since last year.
Her scores meant she did not qualify as one of the top eight out of each event, out of 98 total competitors which included American star Simone Biles. But that was never Tan's ambition at these Olympics, given the difficulty and gulf in standards between herself and the world's top gymnasts.
"The goal today was just to have fun and enjoy what I've worked so hard to earn, and to put a routine out that I can be proud of," she said. "I definitely achieved that. I'm very proud of myself today."
Injury limited Tan's participation on Sunday and has long been intertwined with her sporting journey - she missed the 2017 SEA Games because of a fractured ankle and the 2019 edition because of a knee strain, and shoulder surgery in between even made her contemplate retirement.
But as she showed with her recovery on the beam, her mental game is now sturdier. To calm jangling nerves, Tan practised breathing exercises while lying on her stomach on the floor, oblivious of everything else going on around her, as the other four competitors in her rotation completed their events.
"I really tried to just be present and focus on the experience," she said. "Injuries are always in the back of your mind because when you're training and competing, there's always a nagging pain.
"But I tell myself, 'You've done so much to get here, why not just soak it in and enjoy the experience?' "
Singapore Gymnastics general manager Karen Norden said the association and the entire local community were proud of Tan and the "incredible journey" she took to earn a place in Tokyo.
"It certainly has been a roller coaster ride at times, even without a global pandemic, with her injuries and surgeries, but she has battled the odds," said Norden.
"She earned the right to be exactly where she was today and looked confident and comfortable on the international arena. Sze En has done herself, her family and her country proud. She is an amazing young lady who will continue to succeed in life."
Even after she left the arena hall, Tan was still wearing a smile of satisfaction from her performance and pinching herself at the reality of having become just the second Singaporean gymnast - after Lim Heem Wei at the 2012 London Games - to take part in an Olympics.
"It's just insane," she said. "I can't believe I can now call myself an Olympian. It's been a dream for a very long time."