Swimming: Chantal Liew is first Singaporean to earn open water Olympic berth
20th June 2021

SINGAPORE – Chantal Liew’s reward for making history was nausea and a throbbing headache. On Saturday (June 19) 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 finished the 10km race in 2hr 12min 20sec to place 29th out of 40 swimmers at the Fina Olympic Marathon Swim Qualifiers.

More 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, her placing earned the Singaporean 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 having written her name into 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.”

Despite this, she had already begun assessing her performance.

Liew admitted she struggled in Portugal after a lack of competition – her previous race was in February 2020 – but also said she did not “put my race together” as well as she should have, and found herself further behind in 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 of the race. Nip eventually placed 31st in 2:14:15.

Marcus Cheah, Liew’s coach of almost four years, said he was “fantastically proud” of his athlete, given the difficulty in working toward her Olympic dream amidst 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 along the circuit, alongside other coaches.

“My mind went blank and all I knew was I had to keep cheering and pushing her on.”

He said he hoped to be allowed to work with Liew in a training bubble setting upon their return to Singapore so they can “move forward and ramp up” preparations for Tokyo, with the Olympics just 33 days away.

Liew herself has also said her priority now is to “refocus” on Tokyo, and said she will celebrate her milestone achievement only after returning from the Japanese capital.

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After all, she had planned to qualify for the Tokyo Games in 2020 and then retire from sport to pursue her studies, but the pandemic and year-long postponement of the Games saw her delay her swansong by a year as well. And her journey is not over just yet.

“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 bit.

“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.”

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