The Straits Times carried a feature today ( “Piriyah breaches the 58sec barrier” ) on Singapore Sports School runner T. Piriyah who was, undoubtedly one of the stars of this year’s National Schools Track and Field Championships .
The 16-year-old not only broke the schools 400m and 400m hurdles records but also set a new national U-17 400m record, the only one to do so at this Championships. The report also talked about how Piriyah is the first 400m runner in 24 years to time 57secs.
The story ended by noting the emergence of strong 400m runners like Valerie Pereira, Dipna Lim Prasad and Shalom See. However, said the report, Singapore still has a long way to go in meeting regional standards. Last year’s women’s 4x400m bronze-medal winning time at the SEA Games was 3min 43.90 – which means that every relay runner has to run below 56sec to stand a chance of bagging a medal.
Here’s a funny story about Piriyah at the National Schools Track and Field Championships. I’ve dramatised it a little but it’s more or less what happened.
According to my sources, the 16-year-old Singapore Sports School student found herself getting a scolding from her coach, Viatcheslav Vassiliev, after her Girls B Division 400m heats and semi-finals.
After Piriyah won her heat in 59.16sec on 4 July, coach Viatcheslav scolded her for running too fast. He was afraid that she was going all out too early in the Championships. Her time was also almost a second faster than the 59.72sec she had clocked at the 34th Singapore Junior Athletics Championships.
Piriyah protested that she wasn’t running fast or going all out at all.
Five days later, Piriyah clocked 58.98sec to win her semi-final and qualify for the final. Again, she got a earful from Viatcheslav for going too fast. Again, she protested indignantly that she hadn’t gone all out.
Then came the 400m final on 11 July. The starter’s gun went off and Piriyah took off like a gazelle racing away from a pursuing lionness. Coach Viatcheslav watched with dropped jaws from the terraces. “That mad girl, she is going to run out of steam!” he thought angrily.
But Piriyah didn’t run out of steam. In fact, she blazed the Choa Chu Kang Stadium track at such a frightening pace that she ended up breasting the tape at 57.11sec. It was not only a National Schools record. It also shattered Valerie Pereira’s national U-17 mark of 58.03sec.
Coach Viatcheslav rested his hands on his head. He stayed silent for a while.
Then he turned to his Sports School colleagues and said sheepishly: “Oh… now I know what she meant when she said she wasn’t running fast in the heats and semis.”
On a more serious note, I felt that the last three paragraphs of the report in The Straits Times were a tad harsh. Yes, based on their current times, the likes of Piriyah, Valerie, Dipna and Shalom will not have a sniff of a chance at a SEA Games 4x400m relay medal.
But I think this is missing the forest for the trees.
Hasn’t it occured to anyone that
a) Singapore finally has a group of promising 400m runners emerging together for the first time in more than 30 years?
b) That these bunch of girls are just in their teens and that they have many years of improvement and development ahead? And that if they are clocking sub-58sec times now, that they surely must have the potential to bring their PBs down to sub-57secs in the near future?
The last time we had one great and three very good 400m runners was back in the early 70s. There was Asian Games gold medallist and Singapore running legend Chee Swee Lee and her support group of Maimoon Azian, Lee Tai Jong and Glory Barnabas.
Together, they set the national women’s 4x400m record of 3min 43.85sec, a national milestone which has remained unsurpassed since 1974.
Singapore has had a couple of good 400m runners since but never four or five talented athletes of similar calibre emerging at the same time.
Now we do. In fact, we have more than just four 400m talents. We have potentially six to seven good runners.
Piriyah, Valerie (personal best: 58.05sec), Dipna (PB: 58.68sec) and Shalom (PB: 58.65sec) aside, there’s also Lim Shan Ru of Hwa Chong Institution (PB: 58.88sec), Fiona Ng of St Nicholas Girls (PB: 60.39sec) and the very promising Clara Poon of Cedar Girls who, at age 14, is already clocking 60.48sec.
The Singapore Athletics Association seriously needs to come up with a plan to groom these girls indiviudally and as a relay squad. These girls need to be given opportunities for overseas training and competition so as to help them realise their full potential.
If the SAA can do that, then these girls will not only have a great chance at cracking Singapore’s third oldest athletics record but also at winning a SEA Games medal in the near future.
Currently, the time to beat is 3min 43.90sec – that’s the bronze-medal winning time by Vietnam at the 2007 SEA Games. That means that each runner would have to clock about 56sec in order to meet that time.
Now honestly, looking at the times of these junior runners, do you actually think that is impossible?
If Piriyah can become a future Chee Swee Lee, clocking sub-55sec timings, and if the rest (ie Dipna, Valerie, Shalom, Shanru, Fiona and Clara) can bring their times down to sub-57secs over the next couple of years, don’t you think they will have more than just a fighting chance of doing so?
Will the SAA seize this once-in-a-lifetime chance?
We can only hope and keep our fingers crossed…
Yours in sport,
Singapore Sports Fan