Reporting from Tokyo
TOKYO — She revealed that she was "freaking out" beneath her fencing mask, while he admitted he had "butterflies in his stomach" during his table tennis match.
For Singapore's Kiria Tikanah Abdul Rahman and Clarence Chew, the intense thrill they felt in making their Olympic debuts on Saturday (24 July) had to be tempered by being laser-focused on executing what they had been training for years, in order to advance in their competitions.
Thankfully, they found enough serenity amid their tumultuous emotions to eke out victories in their opening matches and take away indelible memories from their maiden Games.
As an added level of difficulty, both Kiria and Chew had to contend with higher-ranked opponents; yet they showed little fear and plenty of tenacity in upsetting their rivals.
Unflappable even when odds are stacked against her
Kiria had qualified for the women's epee individual competition as its lowest-ranked fencer at world No.209, meaning that she was among four athletes starting from the lowest round of 64 at the Makuhari Messe Hall early on Saturday.
Her first opponent, Hong Kong's Coco Lin, was already ranked 119 spots above her, and had beaten her in each of their past two encounters.
Yet, the 21-year-old proved that her meteoric rise from an unknown to a SEA Games gold winner in 2019 was based around her unflappable temperament when the odds were stacked against her. After all, she had already defied all expectations by beating several higher-ranked fencers en route to qualifying for Tokyo.
Against Lin, she even suffered a potential mental blow when her 1-0 lead was overturned by the umpire into a 0-2 deficit due to technical errors. A weaker-willed athlete would have crumbled with a burning sense of injustice at the contentious call.
Not Kiria. She promptly won the next three points to take a 3-2 lead after the opening round, and kept her lead with deft lunges and blocks against an increasingly exasperated Lin. No matter how aggressive Lin tried to be, Kiria never wavered as she carved out a 15-11 victory to advance.
But when she was complimented on her calmness on the piste, she smiled and said, "Everyone was saying I was so calm, but actually I was freaking out inside. I was so nervous at the start of the match, I almost couldn't maintain my composure.
"But when I was down by two points, I thought there was nothing really to lose; it's just about having the bravery to execute my own moves and not worry too much on the outcome of the match."
Kiria's reward for her mature performance was a round-of-32 clash with world No.1 epee fencer, Ana Maria Popescu. This time the tables were turned, as the Romanian's vastly superior experience gave Kiria no way back from an early deficit, even though she clawed her way back to as close as 10-11.
Yet, even as she eventually lost to Popescu 10-15, Kiria relished the chance of competing with the very best in her sport.
"(Ana) really showed that experience plays a very big role at the Olympics. She knew exactly what actions to take at every stage of the match," she said.
"It has just been a very eye-opening time for me in Tokyo, and I think I learnt a lot from watching the competition. Hopefully, if I have another chance to compete at the Olympics, there'll be a better atmosphere with fans able to attend."
Living his lifelong dream on competing at Olympics
Like Kiria, Chew was eager to soak in as much of the Olympic experience as he possibly could. The 25-year-old was gleefully posting photos of the table tennis arena on social media, and even walked in with the Team Singapore contingent at the Opening Ceremony on Friday.
Despite returning late to his Games Village accommodation after the ceremony, he was up early the next morning and raring to take his Olympic bow in his men's singles round-one tie against Senegal's Ibrahima Diaw at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium later in the afternoon.
"I had a good feeling about my match, because somehow I always seem to perform well whenever I competed in Tokyo, such as at the 2014 World Team Championships," Chew told Yahoo News Singapore.
"It has been my life's dream to compete at the Olympics, and I had butterflies in my stomach during my match."
Whatever elation he had felt in fulfilling his sporting dream, the world No.186 Chew still had to buckle down and find his wits around an opponent ranked world No.70. Despite Diaw's powerful strokes and deceptive serve, Chew was able to adjust his game plan and use his decade-long competitive experience to subdue the Senegalese and win a roller-coaster match 4-2 (11-4, 4-11, 11-3, 13-11, 3-11, 12-10).
Upon clinching the winning point, Chew fell to his knees and let out a guttural roar. He later admitted the roar came from a huge sense of relief after a tough tussle with Diaw.
"The last two sets were very tough, as I was having a lot of trouble with his serves," he explained. "But towards the end, I told myself to calm down and focus on what I needed to do.
"You know, I'm really enjoying my stay at the Olympics. Getting the victory meant I get to stay longer, so I'm especially glad at that."
Indeed, Chew will aim to continue his progress in the men's singles on Sunday with a round-two tie with Austria's Daniel Habesohn. You can be sure he will be spurred on by the thought of prolonging his Olympic dream in Tokyo.
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