SEA Games 2023: All eyes on these Singapore athletes in Cambodia

As the nation prepares to host its very first SEA Games, here are the Singapore athletes that could make big impacts

Singapore athletes to look out for at the 2023 SEA Games: (from left) men's water polo team, long-distance runner Soh Rui Yong, sprinter Shanti Pereira, swimmer Teong Tzen Wei and paddler Izaac Quek. (FILE PHOTOS: Reuters/Getty Images/SNOC/WTT)
Singapore athletes to look out for at the 2023 SEA Games: (from left) men's water polo team, long-distance runner Soh Rui Yong, sprinter Shanti Pereira, swimmer Teong Tzen Wei and paddler Izaac Quek. (FILE PHOTOS: Reuters/Getty Images/SNOC/WTT)

SINGAPORE — This will be a pretty unique SEA Games, and not just because it is the first time the biennial sports meet will be held in Cambodia.

The country will finally be making its hosting debut, 60 years after it was originally slated to host the 1963 edition, but pulled out due to its then-volatile domestic political situation.

Now that it has been economically stable in recent decades, Cambodia is sufficiently confident to feature 608 events in 37 sports from 5 to 17 May, and fingers are crossed that it will pull off a successful Games.

But this is also the first time a SEA Games - usually held once every two years - is being held just a year after the previous one, as last year's Hanoi Games was postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will one year be enough to make any difference to the athletes' regional standings? Here are the top Singapore athletes who could make their marks in Cambodia:

Shanti Pereira (athletics)

It is rare in Singapore's recent SEA Games history when there was excitement over the track and field sprint events. Arguably, the last sprinter who captured the imagination of the Singapore public was C. Kunalan back in the 1960s.

Now, however, there is Shanti Pereira. Two national records broken in a single weekend last month has catapulted the 26-year-old sprinter into prominence, as she heads to Phnom Penh in the form of her life and ready to contend for the women's 100m and 200m golds.

It is almost as if Pereira is making up for lost time, after she burst onto the regional scene by winning the 200m gold at the 2015 Singapore Games. She was set to light the up local sprint scene, but suffered a series of niggling injuries that saw her struggle in the next few SEA Games.

She almost quit her sport, but soldiered on to regain her peak form at the 2022 Hanoi Games, where she won the 200m sprint again and came in second in the 100m dash. That gave her the impetus to train full-time since the start of this year, and her perseverance has paid off with the two national records in Brisbane.

Can Pereira cement her status as among Singapore's greatest sprinters with golden performances in the coming days? "It would mean the world to me if I succeed," she said.

Teong Tzen Wei (swimming)

This will be the first SEA Games since 2011 where Singapore's lone Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling is not participating.

But such is the strength in depth of the national swimming team that, although the 29-time SEA Games gold winner will be missed, the other swimmers are still expected to dominate the pool competitions.

While top swimmers such as Quah Zheng Wen, Quah Jing Wen and Gan Ching Hwee are likely to lead the collective quest for gold, all eyes will nonetheless be on Teong Tzen Wei, who is excelling in the fastest swim events of all, the 50m freestyle and butterfly.

A late bloomer in the local swim scene, the 25-year-old made the big step into international prominence last year, winning a Commonwealth Games silver medal and smashing the Asian short-course record in the 50m fly after clinching two SEA Games golds in Hanoi.

Another strong SEA Games performance will set Teong up nicely for September's Asian Games in Hangzhou, where he could contend for a rare gold medal among the fastest swimmers in Asia.

Men's water polo team

The unthinkable happened in 2019, and for the next four years, the Singapore men's water polo team's singular focus has been on regaining the gold medal they lost to Indonesia - the first time they had lost the gold since 1965.

They hired a new head coach in former Japan national captain Kan Aoyagi; they brought back former stalwarts such as Paul Tan to bolster the squad and mentor the younger talents; and they have trained through the COVID-19 pandemic in order to be ready to wrest back the gold medal in Phnom Penh.

Will it be enough for them to prove that 2019 was an aberration, and normal services will resume from this SEA Games? It is set to be a compelling narrative that makes this SEA Games' water polo competition a must-watch, unlike previous editions when the gold medal was virtually taken for granted.

Soh Rui Yong (athletics)

After years of public disputes, it was heartwarming to see two-time SEA Games marathon gold medallist Soh Rui Yong and the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) set aside their differences last month, and allow the 31-year-old to represent the nation at the Games again.

This will be the first time since the 2019 SEA Games where Soh will don national colours at a major Games, and as the timing of his approval on appeal was too late for him to prepare for the men's marathon, he has decided to race on the tracks this time, in the 5,000m and 10,000m events.

It will be a new challenge for Soh in the two races, even though he is the national record-holder in both events. Nonetheless, he is a fierce competitor who knows what it takes to win long-distance races of any length, and victory in either of the races would at the very least justify the reconciliation between SNOC and the outspoken Soh.

Izaac Quek (table tennis)

While the SEA Games often serves as a launchpad for young athletes to begin their successful sporting careers, paddler Izaac Quek may have jumped the gun somewhat when he caught the public eye with a history-making outing at the recent WTT Singapore Smash.

Two upset victories at the highly-competitive tournament served proof that the 16-year-old has rich potential to be a mainstay in the national table tennis squad for the next decade.

Already, his world ranking has shot up from No.242 to No.72 in the past two months, and he has been rewarded for his rapid improvement with a chance to make his SEA Games debut in Cambodia.

Like 2019 men's singles gold medallist Koen Pang before him, the stage is set for Quek to make an impact on his first SEA Games.

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