You know, it was not too long ago when I met her at Aeon 2015. Her face was such a familiar one. It was surprising when I realised she was wondering about the same thing; for once upon a time she was in Chinese Orchestra, and I was just a scout, back in Tao Nan School. Today, Vanessa is one of VJC’s Cross Country’s irreplaceable members, coming in National 2nd for A division Cross Country Girls, and the new record holder for the girls 2000m steeplechase event. Recently, she competed in the 2015 Asian Youth Championships, Women’s 3km long-distance run for ages 16-17 years old, and this is her experience.
Even as her plane took off to Doha, Qatar on the 6th of May, she worried about the competition conditions, despite being seasoned and very experienced. Why wouldn’t she be? Singapore’s own humidity was really high compared to that of Doha, which was really low. But with fellow team member Nicole Low by her side, she was comforted with the thought of a whole new experience. One to look forward to, and not fear inherently. Planning ahead, they spent much of the time resting up for the duration of the 10h flight, knowing that Doha was a whole 5 hours behind Singapore time, not wanting to be affected too adversely by the jet lag upon their arrival.
The hotel Ezdan was a pleasant surprise for her. Armed with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and world-class gym, it was every athlete’s dream stay over. Buffets were served every mealtime and the beds had clean sheets. “The only thing I didn’t like were the multiple towers. The hotel had four towers with thirty-five levels. Each tower had four lifts, two serving an odd level and the other two an even one. And they were slow. Really, really slow,” said Vanessa with a laugh.
No student wants to miss lectures or tutorials. Ever. When asked if coping with school work would be tough for her, she replied, “Definitely. The pressure and stress to perform was there, all the way. It was hard to focus on school work.”
“But,” she added, “Every break we had, Nicole was there, studying, eyes seemingly piercing through the paper, while I was recovering from my tiring and intense training, but spending the extra time studying at Burger King while waiting for the events to start. She really helped me catch up.”
An hour before her race she met her fellow competitors in the changing room; she saw a range of nationalities. Brunei, Yemen, Jordan, Korea are just a few of the powerhouses there. She was excited, but was also worried. But, who wouldn’t be? They were the best in the world. But she wasn’t nervous – she just had the mindset to do her best.
Finally, on the 8th of May 7.45am Doha time, her moment came. At the starting line, she and Nicole reminded each other to try not to breathe in through their mouths, and breathe in through their noses instead. Otherwise the low-humidity would parch their throats completely. But she couldn’t keep her eyes of the competitor from Jordan.
“Dude, she was just standing there, barefooted and all, and I was wondering whether she had forgotten her shoes.” She said, trying hard not to laugh.
“When the gun shot, it was it man, it was all in or nothing. We wanted to do our best to make Singapore proud. I ran my usual fast pace, a strong head start, until around 50 meters or so when suddenly the whole group caught up with me and boxed me in. I was pushed and shoved and was so shocked they overtook me so fast. After 200 meters, they were well ahead, and they were still in a group together and they were STILL pushing and shoving. I looked back and wondered, was I really caught up in that tornado of chaos?”
“By the time I overtook one of them, I was at my second last lap (each lap was 400 meters, competitors had to run 7 and a half laps), when the competitor from Qatar overtook me!” shrilled the crosser. “That, was the first time I’ve been lapped by anyone, ever. But looking back, it taught me humility. No matter how good you are at what you do, there will always be someone that is not just better, but much better than you.”
“At the last 100 meters I sprinted with everything I got. I thought I could overtake the Korean girl 50 meters ahead of me. But halfway through the sprint I slowed down a little, but ultimately I sped up again, knowing that I could beat her to the finish line. Ultimately I lost to her by half a second. This was my biggest regret. That I didn’t give it my all. But the experience taught me to have more confidence in myself. To hold the faith that I can.” She said, forcing a smile.
It was a hard fought race. Her fellow competitors played rough, and were good, if not better than she was. “Ultimately it’s the journey, not the result that matters,” she said, “Overall I was really amazed by the other competitors when I saw them run. I was impressed by their strengths and unique skillsets. I was so happy to go overseas to participate and am really thankful for the new friends I made, but the greatest gift I received was from my friends, teammates and my coach back at home. They made this possible for me. I couldn’t wish for a better team.”
For Vanessa, the journey was a long one, but it isn’t over. She competed in multiple events, apart from her usual 3 km race. But let her story inspire you. Let it remind you of yourself. To never give up. Always moving forward. Always pressing on.
Legend has it she is still running.
Photo credits to Vanessa Lee Ying Zhuang