Gritty Cheong lunges for a national record
For the first three laps of the 200m breaststroke final, the last race of the evening at the Singapura Finance Singapore National Age Group Swimming Championships yesterday, the spotlight was on Lionel Khoo, who was comfortably under his national record time of 2min 17.69sec.
Christopher Cheong, though, hadn't thrown in the towel.
He turned it on in the final 50m and using every bit of his lanky 1.83-metre frame, touched the wall first at the OCBC Aquatic Centre in a new national record time of 2:16.70, ahead of Khoo who was also under his old mark, clocking 2:17.30.
Both swimmers met the SEA Games qualifying mark of 2:18.57 and, as the two fastest in the country in the event, they will represent the Republic at the biennial meet in the same pool in June.
After the race, Cheong told The New Paper he "wasn't expecting to set a new record".
The 18-year-old from Singapore Swimming Club added: "In the last 50 metres, I just wanted to beat Lionel because we have such a fierce rivalry. I was so pumped up at the end and I'm so happy I did it."
A change in mindset helped Cheong shave more than five seconds off his sixth-placed time of 2:21.99 clocked at the 2013 SEA Games.
While his new personal best would have bagged him a silver at the last SEA Games, the time is still more than three seconds off Nuttapong Ketin's gold-medal mark of 2:13.32.
"I used to swim just for fun. My mentality was like, if I made a final, yay, but if not, then I have got more time to rest," Cheong admitted.
"But after my first swimming medal in the 2012 national schools meet, I thought I could do a lot more... put in a lot more work, my training volume and intensity almost doubled, and I'm now a lot more focused.
"At the nationals last December, I swam 2:18, and Nuttapong swam 2:16, so I feel I'm narrowing the gap. No promises, but my goal is definitely to try to medal and beat him."
Fellow 18-year-old Quah Zheng Wen from Swimfast Aquatic Club also set a new national record when he clocked 55.86 in the 100m backstroke final to go under his old mark of 55.99.
After finishing his International Baccalaureate exams last year, Quah has been training full-time this year, and he is starting to reap the dividends.
"I knew I had back-to-back events tonight - the 200m free and the 100m back - and I wasn't expecting a record in the latter. It is just a bonus," said Quah.
"I guess I could have gone faster if I hadn't raced in the 200m free, but I will still need to discuss with Sergio (Lopez, national coach) on the events that I will compete in at the SEA Games.
"In December, I could do only the shorter distance events because I had just a few weeks of training before the nationals and I focused more on speed.
"Now, I can do some of the longer events as well, after three months of focused training. I think the 100m free tomorrow will be pretty interesting."
Lopez was happy to see two national records fall on Day 1, but urged his charges to set their sights higher.
"These kids are ready to swim really fast... the SEA Games is a step forward, but the young ones should be thinking about the World Junior Swimming Championships in August, and dream about winning at the Asian Games and Olympic Games," said the 46-year-old Spaniard.