SEA Games silver medallist Shyam can't get sprinting out of his blood
The shoulders are still muscular, the 1.80-metre tall frame is lean and the face is every bit as boyish as it was 14 years ago.
U K Shyam looks fit at 39.
That's not surprising, even though he retired from sprinting in 2005.
He can still be spotted three times a week at the Kallang Practice Track, just across the spanking new National Stadium at the Singapore Sports Hub.
Old habits die hard, Shyam insists.
He is not training for any competition, just exercising.
Track work has never ceased to be fun.
"Once a sprinter, always a sprinter," he said, with his trademark megawatt smile.
"You don't suddenly decide to run the marathon. You never forget the feeling of speed.
"But don't ask me what I clock now. I really don't know."
Obviously, Shyam's current speed in the 100m is pedestrian compared to his best ever time - 10.37sec, the national record he achieved twice in 2001, at the World University Games in Beijing and again at the Kuala Lumpur South-east Asia (SEA) Games.
The practice track will be busy in June, when Singapore hosts its first SEA Games since 1993.
It will serve as the warm-up station for athletes before they head off into battle at the National Stadium.
Shyam knows the venue inside out.
It was there when he first joined the track team in 1992, at the late age of 17 years.
"There's always a sense of nostalgia with this place. I remember my first race here, the nerves, the fear, the weak knees," Shyam said.
"I remember seeing how fast and powerful my seniors Hamkah (Afik) and (Mohd) Hosni were. They were the top sprinters then."
In his pomp, Shyam was a track star, often with a couple of journalists or some fans watching and talking to him. Today he walks the practice track mostly undisturbed.
"Do I get recognised? No lah. It's a different time, a different generation now," said Shyam, who lectures philosophy at a junior college.
"Those days, I used to eat at a restaurant and later find out the meal had been paid for by someone. It was a special time, and I was always thankful for the support.
"In the early 2000s, local sports was quite high profile. Now with the SEA Games coming up here, it's important the public get to know our athletes."
Shyam knows the country's top sprinters Gary Yeo and Amirudin Jamal well.
They are friends who sometimes train together at the new gym located at the practice track.
Though he reads the sports pages of local papers regularly, Shyam claims he doesn't really think about his national record being eclipsed.
"Eventually, I think someone will better it, which would be good for Singapore athletics," he said.
"To be honest, 10.37 is not fantastic. I ran it during a time when there wasn't a lot of support (for athletes).
"The SAA (Singapore Athletic Association) then was not like it is now; it used to have a lot of problems."
Once considered the "bad boy" of Singapore athletics, Shyam's run-ins with the SAA over training plans and financial support were well-documented by the press.
Up until 2004, sprinters were told by the old regime not to compete in the 100m and to concentrate on the sprint relays.
"They said, why bother in the 100. You're not good enough," Shyam explained.
He fought the system, and even quit in 2000 when a promise to fund his university fees in Australia was not met.
In his darkest moments, Singapore swimming legend Ang Peng Siong and coach Pedro Acuna came to his aid.
"Peng Siong told me not to give up on my dreams. He gave me a part-time job at his swim school and encouraged me to train on my own," Shyam recalled.
He returned to the national team in 2001 and silenced his critics when he won the Hong Kong Open in 10.45s, meeting the qualifying mark for the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games later that year.
At the World University Games in August, he broke C Kunalan's 33-year-old national record of 10.38.
NEW NATIONAL RECORD
In Kuala Lumpur at the end of the year, he clinched the silver medal by matching his new national record of 10.37, losing to Thailand's Reanchai Sriharwong (10.29).
Said Shyam: "Life was a like a whirlwind that year. Suddenly, sponsors came flooding in and people started donating money to me, anonymously.
"I got a lot of press when I broke Kunalan's record. In one incident before the KL Games, officials had to hide me under a physiotherapy table when reporters came looking for me. I couldn't focus otherwise."
When asked if he could have bettered his national mark with better support, Shyam was clear.
"I spent half my effort fighting the SAA at the time," he said.
"I think I could've run better; 10.20-something maybe. But there's no point saying all that now."
These days, aside from his lecturing job and recreational track work, Shyam also helps out the Singapore Rugby 7s team as they prepare for a SEA Games gold-medal assault.
Every Saturday, he coaches the team on sprint speed and power.
Married to Hui Ping, Shyam was busy visiting relatives during the Chinese New Year period.
"I'll have the usual reunion dinner with my wife's family," he said.
"Then there's also all the house visits, giving hong baos and eating the sinful pineapple tarts.
"But I have Chinese relatives even within my immediate family. So CNY is something I've always looked forward to."
The countdown to this year's SEA Games has already started for the athletes, and Shyam will take in the many events in June, especially the most glamorous of them all, the men's 100m, and how his friends fare.
He said: "I'm really happy to see how much the SAA has moved forward since my time.
"Gary and Amir are getting the support they deserve and there are no more archaic policies.
"The Sports Hub is symbolic of how much sports in Singapore has moved forward."
"I can’t tip who will win the 100, but I will say that whoever runs for Singapore will have thousands of people behind them at the National Stadium. In the 100, the difference between gold and silver is less than 0.1s. Gary and Amirul must use the crowd support to give them that difference."
- 2001 100m men’s silver medallist, U K Shyam, on Gary Yeo and Amirul Jamal’s quest to outgun Thai sprint king Jirapong Meenapra and score a stunning upset at this year’s SEA Games here in June
Let's roar Gary and Amirudin to glory
If U K Shyam could add one more feather to his track resume, which started in 1992 and ended in 2005, it would be the chance to race in front of a partisan home crowd at the South-east Asia (SEA) Games.
The SEA Games will return to Singapore for the first time since 1993 this June, and the 39-year-old, who won silver in the blue riband men's 100m at the 2001 Kuala Lumpur Games, feels that with home support roaring them on, Singapore sprinters Gary Yeo and Amirudin Jamal can upset the odds and win gold.
Singapore's leading duo, Yeo and Amirudin, are aiming to dethrone South-east Asia's 100m sprint king Jirapong Meenapra of Thailand.
The 21-year-old Jirapong is the reigning 100m and 200m champion, and is already a hot favourite for this year's event, having twice clocked a personal best of 10.31sec last year.
While improbable, the host nation can certainly dream that one of their gunslingers can pull off a remarkable upset and rock the new National Stadium, along with the rest of the country, by winning gold.
"I didn't get the chance to compete at a SEA Games on home ground, but I'm really happy for Gary and Amir that they will," Shyam said.
"They have to seize the chance. In the 100, you never know, unless you're talking about Usain Bolt in the Olympics."
In 2001, Shyam himself faced a tough Thai adversary in Reanchai Sriharwong, who had won the gold in the '97 and '99 editions of the Games.
Reanchai ended up pipping Shyam to the gold with a time of 10.29, ahead of Shyam's 10.37.
"Jirapong is damn fast, just like Reanchai," Shyam said.
"It's important to see the sprinter's times during the year leading up to the Games.
"Last year, he clocked 10.31 twice, and this year I heard he is already down to 10.47 - which means there's a very good chance he can hit 10.31, again.
"I can't tip who will win the 100, but I will say that whoever runs for Singapore will have thousands of people behind them at the National Stadium.
"In the 100, the difference between gold and silver is less than 0.1s. Gary and Amirul must use the crowd support to give them that difference."