KUALA LUMPUR - After almost every overseas competition, one thing Cherie Tan and her team-mates could count on was the sight of veteran bowling coach Henry Tan waiting to greet them at Changi Airport.
"Whether we did well or not, he was always there waiting for us, always supporting us," said an emotional Tan yesterday as she struggled to hold back her tears and needed to pause several times to compose herself.
Henry, Singapore's national coach from 2006 to 2013 and a local icon, died of heart failure last Thursday morning, the day the team left for Kuala Lumpur. He was 73.
His passing meant the opening day of the SEA Games bowling competition was a bittersweet one for the 29-year-old - who romped to a dominant victory in the women's singles - and the rest of the national bowlers.
Cherie's winning total of 1,413 pinfalls was comfortably clear of Malaysian duo Sin Li Jane (1,300) and Shalin Zulkifli (1,297). It was also the Singaporean's second singles title after her triumph at the 2011 Indonesia Games.
Cherie, a left-handed hook bowler, was a picture of consistency at the Sunway Mega Lanes. She was the only kegler in the 34-competitor field that scored 200 pinfalls or more in each of her six games.
She said: "I was getting the right carry and didn't really have to make much adjustments. The pacers with us were left-handed as well but always went after me so there was no traffic for me in terms of the oiling.
"I got a few nice breaks too, which was lucky. It just felt like someone up there was looking out for me today."
That person was Henry.
Among his many proteges was Cherie, who took private coaching lessons with him when she was 13 and came under his charge when she joined the national set-up.
"He was very strict and fierce but he was also a great mentor," Cherie said.
His memory will also a source of motivation in Malaysia as the bowlers attempt to capture as many of the 13 golds on offer as they can. The Republic won four golds at the 2015 Games on home soil.
Cherie said: "It's been a sombre last few days. We had a team meeting on Saturday and told ourselves we were going to bowl for Henry this week. He would have wanted us to give our best."
While Cherie, a multiple Asian Games gold medallist, bowled superbly, it was a mixed morning for her team-mates.
Shayna Ng (1,290), New Hui Fen (1,286), Jazreel Tan (1,284), Bernice Lim (1,189) were fourth, fifth, sixth and 19th respectively. Cherie's younger sister Daphne, the defending champion, was 25th with a score of 1,120.
Singapore Bowling Federation technical director Mervyn Foo played down any concerns and said: "It was a good learning experience for the girls and they'll make the necessary adjustments.
"Tomorrow is the doubles, which we lost to Malaysia in 2015, so I'm sure they'll be extra motivated to bring that gold back. It was something Henry would have wished for."
Malaysia had topped the standings two years ago with five golds and yesterday's results were only a slight setback, said 39-year-old veteran Shalin.
She added: "It makes us more dangerous as we're now even more fired up. We are going to fight to the end. We won two medals today but we want gold from now on."
Singapore have drawn first blood in this enduring Causeway rivalry and Cherie, who finished eighth with Ng in the doubles in 2015, is keen to build on the momentum.
Cherie said: "We've started well, got one gold and it would be nice to sweep all the events. I'm sure Henry is watching us and we want to make him proud.
"It's going to be surreal to not have him at the airport waiting there for us. But he's always on our minds."