History made by swimmer Chantal Liew, but celebrations on hold
Liew, first S'porean to qualify for Olympic open water swimming race, wants to focus on her preparations
Chantal Liew's reward for making history was nausea and a throbbing headache. On Saturday evening in Setubal, Portugal, the 22-year-old open water swimmer became the first Singaporean in the discipline to earn a ticket to the Olympics.
She covered the 10km race in 2hr 12min 20sec to finish 29th out of 40 swimmers at the Fina Olympic Marathon Swim Qualifiers.
Crucially, she was the best Asian finisher behind two Japanese swimmers Yumi Kida (2:03:03, 12th) and Minami Niikura (2:04:56, 19th).
With Japan already gaining a slot at the July 23-Aug 8 Games as host, Liew earned the sole continental quota spot available for Asia.
In a phone interview with The Straits Times barely an hour after her race, Liew - who in 2017 also became the first Singaporean woman to win an open water swimming medal at the SEA Games - described how she felt about being in the record books again.
"Right now? To be honest, I feel awful," she said.
"I feel like I'm about to vomit and I have a pounding headache. The shock of making the Olympics has passed, and I'm feeling the after-effects of the race."
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong congratulated Liew on her feat, noting that beneath her "fun, bubbly" exterior lay a "gritty personality, determined, focused and full of resolve".
Indeed, even while coping with recovery from the race, she had already begun assessing her performance.
She admitted she struggled in Portugal due to a lack of competition - her previous race was in February last year - but also said she did not "put my race together" as well as she should have, and found herself further behind the field than she would have liked.
She ended up overtaking her main rival for the Asian quota spot, Hong Kong's Nip Tsz Yin, only in the final 2.1km.
Nip eventually finished 31st in 2:14:15.
Marcus Cheah, Liew's coach of almost four years, said he was "fantastically proud" of her, given the difficulty in working towards her Olympic dream amid the pandemic.
"When she went in front of the Hong Kong girl and started speeding past… I don't even know how to express how I felt in words," said Cheah, who was watching the race from a pontoon at the circuit alongside other coaches.
"My mind went blank and all I knew was I had to keep cheering and pushing her on."
He hopes to be allowed to work with Liew in a training bubble upon their return to Singapore today, so they can "move forward and ramp up" preparations for Tokyo with the Olympics just over a month away.
Liew's priority now is to refocus on Tokyo, and she will celebrate her milestone achievement only after returning from the Japanese capital.
After all, she had planned to qualify for the Tokyo Games last year and then retire from sport to pursue her studies, but the pandemic and year-long postponement of the Games saw her delay her swansong.
And her journey is now on its final leg.
"This race (in Portugal) was always going to be very special for me, because if I didn't make it, it would have been my last, and I would be retired now," she said, choking up a little.
"I'm very relieved I've made it, but more than that, I feel grateful for this journey. And right now, I want to refocus and make sure that in Tokyo, I will swim a race that I can be proud of."