SINGAPORE — After capturing the hearts of Singaporeans with her wonderful double-gold feat at the Cambodian SEA Games earlier this year, all eyes will be on sprinter Shanti Pereira as she attempts to repeat the feat at the Asian Games, which begin in Hangzhou on Saturday (23 September).
But there are several young athletes who had also made golden breakthroughs at the SEA Games, and are eager to push on to the next level and find out where they stand among the top Asian athletes in their sport of choice.
For swimmers Jonathan Tan and Letitia Sim, as well as paddler Izaac Quek, the competition will become much tougher at the Asiad, but they remain optimistic that what they have learnt and experienced throughout this year will serve them well in their hunt for glory in Hangzhou.
Extra year makes all the difference for Letitia Sim
The upcoming Asian Games was postponed from last year due to China's battle with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the extra year has been a big bonus for Sim.
The 20-year-old University of Michigan student had announced herself at the 2022 Hanoi SEA Games - which itself was postponed from 2021 - with two individual golds in the women's 50m and 100m breaststroke on her Games debut.
But a year later in Phnom Penh, Sim improved to three individual SEA Games golds, claiming the 100m and 200m breaststroke as well as the 200m individual medley golds in an eye-catching outing along with Singapore's formidable swimming contingent.
It was well worth a year of further refining her swim techniques as she prepares to make her Asian Games debut against top-tier rivals from China and Japan.
"Honestly, the postponement of the Asian Games was the best thing that could have happened, as the original dates were among a lot of other meets in the US, and it would have meant a lot of scheduling problems," she told Yahoo Southeast Asia.
"Also, I felt that last December's World Short Course Championships in Melbourne was a turning point for me. It was the first time that I felt I had really implemented a lot of things I've learnt in the past summer, like time change and my diet.
"It was also in Melbourne where I felt, mentally, I handled myself well. There were good races, there were disappointing races, but I've managed to keep my emotions super level, and that's where I need to be every time in major competitions."
Sim will be hoping to emulate Roanne Ho's silver-medal feat in the women's 50m breaststroke race at the previous Asian Games in Jakarta in 2018. However, given the strong field of swimmers, she is focusing less on medals and more on improving her personal-best times, especially since they are close to making the Olympic "A" cut for the 2024 Paris Games.
"Going into Asian Games, I acknowledge that I have no idea where I stand. So when it's time to race, I just feel like I just got to put everything I did in my training into my performance, hope for the best, and trust in the process.I know at the end of the day, I'll always put in my best effort."
Jonathan Tan targets Olympic qualification for 100m free
For Tan, 21, he has already qualified for next year's Olympics, making the cut for the men's 50m freestyle event en route to winning gold at the Cambodia SEA Games.
He was the first Singaporean athlete to do so, but his ambition does not end there. At the Hangzhou Asiad - his second Asian Games outing after Jakarta 2018 - Tan is aiming to continue lowering his personal-best times - and hopefully make the Olympic cut for the 100m free.
"In the five years since the Jakarta Asian Games, I've learnt quite a lot about myself, how I react to certain situations in competitions," he said.
"But I view the Asian Games as a stepping stone to making the Olympics - an important stepping stone of course, and we've trained really hard for it. Hopefully we can do well and achieve good timings in Hangzhou, and that will put us closer to where we need to be to take the next steps to the Olympics."
Tan's rapid progress since a two-bronze effort in the relay events at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games has impressed national head coach Gary Tan, who feels that he even has a chance at claiming a medal in the highly-competitive freestyle sprint.
"The sprints are a 50-50 crapshoot, as long as our guys fire on all cylinders, they can challenge for the podium," the coach said.
"We want our swimmers to focus on breaking personal bests. If medals come along with that, it will be a natural process."
With Olympic champion Joseph Schooling not being selected for this Asian Games - and possibly reaching the end of his illustrious swimming career soon - Tan, Sim and other national swimmers will have the chance to prove their abilities and perhaps claim the mantle of being Singapore's top swimmer.
"I hope to see them with happy faces after their races," coach Tan said.
"The extra year for this Asian Games has given them a longer trajectory to prepare, so we hope they can hit their PBs (personal-bests), share their joys and the medals would come once they hit those marks."
Izaac Quek learns from the best in breakout year
Away from the pool, 17-year-old Izaac Quek has also had a breakout year. He became the first Singapore paddler to win a men's singles match at the elite WTT Singapore Smash tournament in March; in fact, he won twice at the event, beating opponents ranked much higher than him along the way.
That proved to be the launching pad for a stellar outing at the SEA Games for Izaac, as he swept to three golds (men's singles, doubles and team) in Phnom Penh, thrilling with his deft smashes and passionate roars whenever he won a point.
Even though he is unlikely to repeat his three-gold feat against a formidable field of top-tier paddlers at the Asian Games, Izaac believes he has come a long way since the start of the year in developing his competitive nous.
"Since moving on from youth to senior tournaments, I've learnt that seniors don't make as many mistakes. It's a hard lesson for me to learn to be at my best at every senior match, and not be careless and make errors that would put me on the back foot," he told Yahoo Southeast Asia.
"Another lesson I've learnt is to be ready for long rallies, especially when senior singles matches can last as many as seven sets. If you're tired by the fourth or fifth sets, opponents will try to extend the rallies to force you to make mistakes. I still have a lot to work on my rallies against the stronger players."
Even though these three young athletes are set to face stiff challenges in their quest for medals in Hangzhou, none of them are shying away from the prospect of defeat by far more seasoned winners.
"I always wanted to face the top paddlers, and watch how they respond to the high-pressure situations and how they have to successfully adapt to every situation," Izaac said.
"The experiences are important for me to absorb and take back into training to become better. Then I can come back again and be a better player."
Singapore will have 431 athletes competing in 32 sports at the Hangzhou Asian Games from Saturday to 8 October.
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