26 April 2012

Racing against time@Straits Times

THE swimmer in Florida has given up fast food and late nights. The shooter is in London, training and praying. The paddler is in Spain, making up for lost ground. And the gymnast is in Singapore, searching for courage.

With exactly 100 days to go before the Olympic Games, time is running out for the Republic's top athletes, who are scattered across the planet chasing either qualification or redemption.

Each has a different story to tell. But the ending, they all hope, will be a joyous one in London.

The heat is on

Eight have already earned the right to compete in the British capital come July, including the globe-trotting women's table tennis team, the only ones who can call themselves Olympic medallists.

They are also the ones who are under the most pressure. Wang Yuegu, Feng Tianwei and Li Jiawei are now only the world's third-best team, and they have three precious months left to overtake Japan and reclaim second place.

If they fail to do so, they will be seeded third in the Olympic team event - which means a meeting with China before the final, and near-certain elimination.

Their rescue mission begins this week at the Spanish Open in Almeria - the first of six table tennis World Tour events which offer ranking points before the window closes in July.

'It's important to rise up the team and individual rankings,' said Eddy Tay, their high performance manager. 'But it helps that Yuegu, Tianwei and Jiawei are experienced Olympians. That experience could make a difference.'

The nerves are jangling, too, for swimmer Tao Li, Singapore's butterfly queen, who has gone from fifth place at the 2008 Olympics to second-rate in the qualification chase.

She has yet to secure a ticket to London, having failed to meet the A qualification time (58.70 seconds) in the 100m fly. Her B time (58.78) is almost certainly good enough to earn her an eventual place on the starting blocks, but her sliding form is alarming.

'We're trying to get Tao Li to where she was previously,' said national head coach Ang Peng Siong. 'She usually delivers at major meets.'

Fear and sacrifice

Lim Heem Wei, the first gymnast from Singapore to qualify for the Olympics, is unburdened by such expectations. The only thing she fears is fear itself.

The 23-year-old is adding a more difficult move to her beam routine - a double somersault known as a double back pike. There is no room for error. If executed poorly, the gymnast could land on her head and injure herself badly.

'It's not going to be easy because I'm a bit timid by nature,' she admitted. 'But that's the psychological barrier I'm going to have to overcome.'

Sacrifices will have to be made. Lim - a university undergraduate - has dropped several modules in school to focus on sport.

In sailing, Victoria Chan, Elizabeth Yin, Scott Glen Sydney and Colin Cheng have all deferred their studies to go on a training voyage across Europe.

In the United States, butterfly star Joseph Schooling clocks 11km in the pool each day, does weights, underwater training and even boxing. No wonder he has no time for late nights with his friends - or fast food.

'I've given up Wendy's, McDonald's and KFC,' he said wistfully. 'There's only a couple of meets before the Olympics and I need to keep my head down and train hard even though I'm really tired.'

Hope springs eternal

At least Schooling knows he will be going to London for sure. Singapore's top air-rifle shooter Jasmine Ser reckons she has only a '50-50' chance of getting there, after failing to qualify directly.

An unused quota place (UQP) - given to countries whose shooters have all missed the cut - is her only hope. She is currently in London for a World Cup event at the Royal Artillery Barracks, the same venue which will be used for the Olympic competition.

'I'm training on the assumption that I can go, and the event will be a good gauge of my ability,' she said. 'I can only pray hard that I can get the UQP.'

Stefan Tseng knows that feeling. The triple jumper, along with three others from track and field, is banking on getting one of two wild cards that could be offered to Singapore.

'I'll try and qualify directly on my own, but it won't be easy,' said Tseng, whose personal best of 16.08m is still well short of the 16.8m required for automatic qualification.

Internal competitions

Before they can beat the rest of the world, some of Singapore's athletes have to first beat their own.

This is most stark in sailing, where it is all about the survival of the fittest. Yin and Sydney earned Olympic slots for their country in the Laser Radial and Laser events respectively. But they will have to finish ahead of their own teammates over two trial events - the World Championships and the pre-Olympic test regatta - to get to the Games.

This policy, according to SingaporeSailing, ensures that the most in-form sailor gets to represent the Republic.

In badminton, the equation is more complicated. Five shuttlers are in the qualification mix, which will take into account world rankings and whether giants like China and Indonesia hit their maximum quota of players.

The women's singles, in particular, will throw up a painful conundrum. Gu Juan, the world No. 17, is set to win a lone spot in the event, but the Singapore Badminton Association could pick SEA Games champion Fu Mingtian ahead of her.

Said the SBA's senior technical manager Chua Yong Joo: 'It will be a tough choice, but we will look at world rankings, their record against top opponents and their recent performances.'

The last lap

Twenty-five men and women across six sports made it to Beijing in 2008. This year, only 10 tickets in three sports have been won so far, though the eventual number could double.

The suspense will end on June 15, when the Singapore National Olympic Council unveils the final list of those who will wear the nation's colours at the Olympics. There will be heartbreak for some. But, for those who have made it, their hearts will flutter all the way to the opening ceremony on July 27.

'The days are passing faster than I thought,' said Lim. 'I'm doing well in training, but I want to deliver the same kind of standards when I get to London. I don't want to leave with any regrets.'

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