SINGAPORE - Two months ago, national swimmer Christie Chue received a direct message on Instagram from Florida International University inviting her to further her studies and train there. Her immediate thought was: "Is this a scam?"
The first thing she did was to show her mum the message and ask if it was real, before verifying that it was when she checked the Instagram account and the college's website.
Even then, the offer felt surreal.
"When I found out it was real, it was a shock. I thought, 'this is not happening'," said the 20-year-old.
The breaststroke specialist, who won three gold medals at last year's SEA Games, had given up her goal of pursuing her studies in the United States after she was rejected by the University of Michigan two years ago. She had trained full-time in Singapore from 2018 until her enrolment in the International Sports Academy last April, where she is pursuing a diploma in sport science and management.
Pursuing a degree in the US appealed to her because she had previously heard from friends that there was a better balance between training and studying.
Hence it did not take much convincing for her to accept Florida International University's offer. She has not decided on a course of study but will receive a scholarship grant of $10,000 in her first year and will be on full scholarship for the remaining two years.
Chue, who will enrol next August, said: "I didn't want to miss such a good opportunity, so I decided to go for it.
"It wasn't just swimming; they have advisers to help us with our school work if we are behind time or need any help and I feel that is what I really need. I've been trained here my whole life and I wanted to try something new."
The Panthers swim team, led by head coach Randy Horner, are in Division 1 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Swimming and Diving Championships.
In the 10 seasons that he has been in charge, Horner has led the team to five titles in the Conference USA, an inter-collegiate athletic conference.
Chue knows that she will be up against some stiff competition in the NCAA, but she relishes the challenge and sees it as a learning opportunity.
"I'm excited about that because I see my friends compete in the NCAA and it looks really fun," said Chue. "Also, because you are competing with top swimmers and many other better athletes, it would be a good chance to see where you stand against US swimmers and gain experience."
Currently, three national swimmers, Quah Zheng Wen (University of California, Berkeley), Quah Jing Wen (Texas A&M) and Darren Lim (Georgia Tech) are training and studying in the US.
One of the top breaststroke swimmers in Singapore, Chue had an excellent campaign last season with her SEA Games titles and four national records.
Aside from clocking new marks in the 100m and 200m breaststroke last year, she also linked up with her teammates to rewrite the 4x200m freestyle relay and 4X100m medley relay records at the Philippines SEA Games.
National swimming head coach and performance director Stephan Widmer said he had spoken to her about the need to adjust quickly when goes to the US.
He added: "She has slowly started to believe more in her abilities that were always there and took that to another level. She's evolved in a really nice way to get some good results at the SEA Games, but to me, that's just the start.
"Time will tell if it's a good decision for her - she will have to adapt very quickly to the US college system, to new training partners, coaching staff and so on, so she has to be on the ball about that. It's a new challenge that she'll have to adapt to and push forward."
For now, Chue, who is a part of Swimfast Aquatic Club, will continue to train in Singapore in her bid to qualify for next year's Tokyo Olympics. Her personal bests for the 100m and 200m breaststroke are 1:09.06 and 2:28.71 respectively, and she is working on meeting the Olympic A qualifying times of 1:07.07 and 2:25.52.
Her internship with the Singapore Swimming Association, where she has been working with technical director Sonya Porter to compile timing data for the national swimmers and comparing it with the top 10 athletes in the world, had kept her motivated in training.
"When I train, I keep in mind the timings I need to aim for, so it's a daily reminder that I need to hit those target times," she said.