SEA Games 2023: Being called a ‘has-been’ hurt, but Shanti Pereira is smiling now

She rewrote her 100m national record thrice and her 200m national mark twice in less than a month before the historic two-gold haul in Phnom Penh.

Deepanraj Ganesan

Deepanraj Ganesan

The Straits Times


Singapore sprinter Shanti Pereira now has four gold medals from the SEA Games in the 100m and 200m. PHOTO: ST FILE

May 15, 2023

PHNOM PENH – Finally, after two months of back-to-back races and travelling, Shanti Pereira is chilling at home, pausing her phone interview with The Straits Times to collect her coffee delivery from Toast Box.

She has finally had time to reflect on her achievements in the past week, when she was crowned South-east Asia’s top woman sprinter after claiming two golds in the 100m and 200m at the Cambodia SEA Games.

The relaxed Pereira we see today is not the same runner from 2021, when she was battling “a very big identity crisis”, which saw her spiralling to the lowest point of her life.

After graduating from the Singapore Management University with an accounting degree, she was poised to enter the next phase of her life, but found herself uncertain about what lay ahead.

She did not want to pursue a career in accountancy and with her struggles for form on the track, she was lost on both fronts and fell into a deep funk.

The 26-year-old told ST: “It was difficult for me. I just wasn’t performing in any of my races. And so yeah, that made me kind of go through a very, very big identity crisis, because if I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do outside of track and if on track I’m not performing, then how?

“If I am not the sprint queen any more, if I can’t do this any more, then who am I? It’s one of the biggest things that I had to go through in my journey so far. Probably the biggest mental battle I had to fight.”

From the high of 2015 when she was the talk of the town after winning her first SEA Games gold in the 200m on home soil, she hit a low when her dip in performance saw her excluded from the Sport Excellence Scholarship programme.

Chatter in the fraternity this time was far less positive as jibes, including comments about her weight, came from all corners.

In a recent interview with ST, her parents Clarence and Jeet Pereira said they heard distasteful comments about their youngest child, with some members of the public and those in the scene calling her a “has-been”.

Pereira said: “It was (comments like) I’m not at my peak any more or that I can’t get back to where I was before and then a lot of comments on my weight as well.

“It just made me upset. It was like, why are people saying these things about me and I’ll be really affected by what people were saying even though I shouldn’t care.”

In 2022, Pereira had enough and decided to channel her energy to focus on herself and her training. The love and support from her “rocks” – her parents, siblings and boyfriend, former runner Tan Zong Yang – was crucial too. Having Luis Cunha come on board as her coach in 2020 was a big boost as well as consistent sessions with the Portuguese began to show results.

She rewrote her 100m national record thrice and her 200m national mark twice in less than a month in Australia and New Zealand in 2023 before the historic two-gold haul in Phnom Penh.

Looking back on her eight-year journey from a wide-eyed teenager to the confident woman she is today, Pereira said the big change was also sparked by a shift in her mentality, from “acceptance that this is how a journey in sport looks like”.

She cited examples of her idol, British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom have had to deal with setbacks during their successful careers.

“There’s bound to be bad seasons and just bad times. It’s just the way it is,” she said.

“I just kind of realised that this is just part of the package. All of these athletes all over the world go through the same thing, even world champions. We are all kind of together in this.”

Shanti Pereira and her coach Luis Cunha at Changi Airport on May 13, after returning from Cambodia. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Marvel movies and the sitcom Modern Family, as well as cafe-hopping and twice-a-week yoga sessions help her to de-stress, as she gears up for the rest of the season.

After a week of rest, she will travel to Germany and Switzerland next week for meets before the July 12-16 Asian Athletics Championships in Thailand and the Hangzhou Asian Games from Sept 23-Oct 8. A medal at the Asian Games is the target, as is qualifying for the Paris Olympics in 2024.

The runner who once questioned her identity certainly knows who she is now, but would Pereira have changed any part of her journey?

She said: “No matter what happened in the past eight years, it’s still a part of my journey and it’s made me who I am today, who I am as a person and as an athlete. All the experience I’ve gained all this time has helped me learn a lot of things that helped me prepare better for competitions and for training.

“I’m not gonna take away the past eight years… If anything, it’s helped me realise that this is really what I’m meant to do.”

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