Shot put queen Zhang meets qualifying mark for SEA Games
Six-time shot put champion Zhang is first track and field athlete to meet qualifying mark for KL Games
She is the undisputed shot put queen of South-east Asia.
Zhang Guirong has made the shot put gold medal her own since she first won it in 2005 and the 38-year-old Singaporean is gunning for her seventh straight gold in the discipline when Kuala Lumpur hosts the South-east Asia (SEA) Games from Aug 19-31 next year.
Zhang became the first Singaporean athlete to qualify for the biennial Games when she met the qualifying mark at a Liaoning Province competition in China on Aug 19.
Singapore Athletics (SA), the national sports association for the sport, has pegged the qualifying mark for all disciplines at the level achieved by the bronze-medal winner at the previous Games.
While Zhang's effort of 14.52 metres on Aug 19 surpassed the silver-medal distance of 13.62m - achieved by Thailand's Areerat Intadis - at the 2015 Games hosted in Singapore, it was just shy of her gold-medal winning throw of 14.60m.
Zhang will be 39 by the time the 2017 SEA Games comes round but, Dr G Balasekaran, SA vice-president for training and selection, believes the veteran can extend her dominance in the discipline.
"The qualifying window opened on Aug 1 and we're glad that someone has hit the mark early," Dr Balasekaran told The New Paper yesterday.
"She is the first one to qualify and what we want from her is another gold medal."
The SA's qualifying window is from Aug 1 to May 31 next year, before it submits a final list of names for ratification by the Singapore National Olympic Council.
Zhang owns the national women's shot put record of 18.57m, set in 2005, but has seen a general decline in performance since then.
Dr Balasekaran, however, is not worried.
"With this distance, she will be a strong contender for the gold medal and she wants to compete at the SEA Games. We are aware that her distances have been dropping and we are nurturing younger athletes to come up and fill the void," he said, pointing to others like Hannah Lee, who finished fourth at the last Games, with a throw of 12.56m.
Although she met the qualifying mark, it does not mean that Zhang will automatically be included in athletics' SEA Games final squad.
"Sometimes, an athlete qualifies early, then stops training. What we want is for athletes to be in training and to be able to peak at the Games when we nominate them to be in the final squad," said Dr Balasekaran.
"Guirong will have to take part in one more sanctioned meet between January and May 31 next year, where she will have to hit 97 per cent of the mark achieved by the 2015 SEA Games bronze-medal winner."
Sprinter Shanti Pereira was the darling of the Games last year, when she ended a 42-year wait for a sprint gold by winning the women's 200m in a national record of 23.60 seconds.
That was one of three athletics gold medals that Singapore won at the Games, along with three silver medals and three bronze ones.
The target is to better that performance in Kuala Lumpur next year, but Dr Balasekaran did not want to put pressure on his athletes.
"We want to do better than the last SEA Games, but we don't want to put a number (of medals) to the target," he said.
"We are looking at 21, maybe 22 athletes to qualify for the SEA Games and we're aiming for personal best (performances) that will hopefully get us more medals than the last time."