SINGAPORE: The last time rower Saiyidah Aisyah won a race was at the 2013 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and she left it late in the last 500m to catch and overtake the front pack.
But on Monday (April 25) at the Asia and Oceania Olympic qualification regatta in South Korea, she shot out of the blocks to lead the opening quarter, before hanging on to cross the line first, becoming the first-ever Singaporean rower to qualify for the Olympic Games.
“It’s still quite unbelievable. It still makes me go: 'Is this real, ah?'” a spirited Saiyidah told Channel NewsAsia.
Yet hours earlier, it was a do-or-die situation for the 28-year-old, who had to win her Final B to be ranked the seventh female single sculler at the regatta and earn the last ticket to Rio 2016 after the six “A” finalists ahead of her.
“I didn't think of it as my last chance. I thought of it as another opportunity,” said Saiyidah, who finished just over a second ahead of Thai veteran and 2012 Olympian Phuttharaksa Neegree.
Heading into the race, she was aware of the threat posed by Neegree as well as eventual second runner-up Tala Aladin Abujbara of Qatar. The former had bested her at the 2015 SEA Games, while the latter had clocked a faster time than her in the semifinals on Sunday.
Both were quicker than Saiyidah in the last quarter of their 2,000m race, but she said the key to staving them off was to “keep it simple” by constantly counting her strokes and reminding herself to use her legs.
“I focused on what I can control and what I can do,” she said, crediting her mental skills coach Hansen Bay for the advice.
“BEST RACE EVER”: COACH
Despite the added pressure of qualifying for the Olympics by having to win Final B in contrast to securing a spot in Final A, both Saiyidah and her coach Alan Bennett said there was never any doubt that she would be competing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from August 6 to 13.
“It was a just a question of putting the pieces together,” said Bennett. “We have a process and we follow it, we’re not worried about anything else and the outcome will take care of itself like what happened today.”
He added: “She did a great job today. That was the best race I’ve ever watched her in.”
INSPIRE FUTURE ROWERS?
While Saiyidah has qualified for the Olympics, the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) and Singapore Rowing Association (SRA) must still confirm her entry to the world rowing body. The SNOC will hold its selection committee meeting end-May to endorse her nomination.
Meanwhile, SRA lauded the result as a milestone for Singapore. “We hope her qualification for Rio will be inspirational to future and potential rowers,” said the association’s head of Training and Development Razemin Omar.
He added that SRA will continue work together with Sport Singapore to support Saiyidah’s overseas training.
The rower is due to return to Sydney, Australia where she is based, to continue training and competing in state races before a potential training camp in London ahead of the Olympics. While Saiyidah will be supported by her newly-awarded Sports Excellence (spex) Scholarship, she also took the time to appreciate donors to her crowdfunding effort which kicked off in January and has since raised over S$13,000.
“It helped me survive and get this far. Thank you so much for believing in me,” she said.