The duo topped the 21-country fleet in the 11th of 12 races of the Olympic women's 49er FX regatta. Credit: Instagram/Team Singapore

After six years of hard work since their partnership began in 2015, Singapore sailors Cecilia Low and Kimberly Lim can finally claim to be on top of the world, even if it was for just 33 minutes and 47 seconds.

In the 11th of 12 races of the Olympic women’s 49er FX regatta at the Enoshima Yacht Harbour on Saturday (July 31), the duo topped the 21-country fleet, the first time any Singaporean sailor has done so at the Games.

The superb result helped them finish ninth out of 21 boats overall with 97 net points, which means after a rest day on Sunday, they will compete in the medal race on Monday, another first for Singapore sailing.

However, with points from the preliminaries carrying over into the medal race, they will not be able to overhaul the top three teams for a shot at glory. Holland and defending champions Brazil are tied for the lead on 70 points. Germany are third on 73.

Still, they have the distinction of finishing as Asia’s top pair. Japan and China were 18th and 19th respectively.

There had been a bit of uncertainty as to whether Low and Lim had made the top 10 because they had dropped to 13th in their final race on Saturday. However, the Race 11 disqualification of Americans Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea worked in the Singaporeans’ favour.

In an interview on Saturday, the 2018 Asian Games champions’ chemistry was clear as they finished each other’s sentences excitedly, and Low, 28, said: “We didn’t know (about the achievements) and we didn’t expect it.”

Lim, 24, added: “Only when (Singapore chef de mission and former Singapore Sailing president) Ben Tan told us, then we knew for sure. It’s pretty unreal.

“That’s our first win at the Olympics, we’ll keep that forever. Winning a race is always challenging in these kinds of fleets. It’s always special. We haven’t won many races in our careers in the FX actually, so this is a special one.”

In the 49erFX, catching speed and position are key. Singapore Sailing general manager Chung Pei Ming said: “A lot of effort is put into testing equipment, settings and sailing techniques in various conditions.

“If we are able to go faster than others by even 1 per cent, it gives us the advantage and freedom to manoeuvre at the front of the fleet.”

This they did to perfection in the 11th race, with Low adding: “We knew we got it right, we got the speed, all we needed to do was just to protect (our position).”

The duo had clinched their Tokyo 2020 ticket by placing 15th at the World Championships in New Zealand in 2019, and the relatively early qualification allowed them to focus on their sailing development.

But there were still sacrifices to be made. Low delayed her entry to the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Asia while Lim took time off from her Singapore Management University accountancy degree course, as they spent eight months training in Portugal before flying to Japan. They could not return home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

They had finished no higher than 11th in six races on Tuesday and Wednesday. But on Friday and Saturday, they were third, second, seventh, eighth, first and 13th.

Low said: “It’s been so intense. The other teams in the top 10 are super experienced and super good. We just want to recover as much as possible and be fresh for the medal race and enjoy the race.”

Lim added: “It’s just 10 boats, so it’s a small race. It’s all about protecting your position rather than opening and looking for a strategy.”

The other Singaporean sailors in Tokyo were Ryan Lo (men’s Laser) and Amanda Ng (windsurfing). Lo finished 21st out of 35 after 10 races. Ng was 26th out of 27 after 12 races in the women’s RS:X class which was eventually won by China’s Lu Yunxiu.

SSF president Lincoln Chee was encouraged by their performances as they work towards a better showing at Paris 2024.

Noting Low and Lim’s coach Fernando Kuo’s contributions, he said: “We are so happy for Kimberly and Cecilia… this was in part our strategic decision to adopt this highly technical class early in its cycle, selecting the best sailor profiles for the boat and sending them to spar and compete with the best in Europe for the better part of the last four years.

“Of course, much of the credit goes to the awesome twosome who showed great commitment, talent, hard work and sacrifice.

“Ryan and his coach Nenad Viali also deserve a shout-out as Ryan finished among the top 10 in two races in one of the most competitive classes in sailing.”

This article was first published on The Straits Times.