From The Straits Times    |

National sprinter Shanti Pereira – this year’s SEA Games gold medalist in the women’s 200m final – got her first taste of track and field when she was in primary three as a spectator watching her older sister compete in a race. That spurred her on to follow in her sister’s footsteps. She took part in her school’s 100- and 400-metre relays and won, catching the attention of the school’s track and field coach, who then asked her to join his training sessions. The rest, as they say, is history.

Almost two decades later, the now 25-year-old has notched several more wins under her belt. At the 2015 SEA Games, Shanti snagged the bronze medal in the 100m and gold in the 200m races – Singapore’s first medals in the sporting event in 42 years. She also rewrote her own national record for the 200m event, finishing the race in 23.6 seconds, some 0.2 seconds faster than the time she had set in the day’s heats.

Shanti has also set several new national records at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this month. She clocked a time of 11.48s during the 100m heats, qualifying her for the semi-finals of the event. According to the Singapore National Olympic Council, she had set a new personal best and national record based on her previous time of 11.58s. Later on, Shanti broke another personal beast during the 200m heats with a time of 23.46s, which she later matched during the semi-finals where she was placed fifth.

But one of her biggest achievements was at the SEA Games in Hanoi earlier in May, where she not only bagged a gold medal in the women’s 200m final, but also set a new national record of 23.52 seconds in the process.

“That was my proudest moment, because it came after years of ups and downs, a lot more downs than ups actually. It took so much out of me to prepare mentally for my race. But it was a very important moment because I finally broke free of what was holding me back. I wasn’t afraid of approaching the start line. I felt good. That’s why I was so emotional after my race, because it was very cathartic to just let go and win,” Shanti reminisces.

I finally broke free of what was holding me back. I wasn’t afraid of approaching the start line.

A fork in the road

Stretch cotton crop top with matching leggings, and satin mules, Gucci
Double-breasted wool jacket, Gucci. Satin pumps, Manolo Blahnik

The ups and downs she referred to occurred in the seven years between the two SEA Games, when she grappled with injuries, criticisms and self-doubt. She suffered an identity crisis and was unsure of her future, especially after graduating from Singapore Management University with an accounting degree and faced with the need to land a full-time job. At one point, the track star truly believed that her sporting career was over.

“Injuries are part of every athlete’s journey, but it’s hard when you have to find your way back to being able to compete at such a high level again. On a personal level, it was hard to juggle adulting and being a part-time athlete. The future seemed so uncertain then. I was not sure of what I was supposed to do as a career, apart from track. Because at that point in time, I wasn’t doing super well – I wasn’t clocking national records or personal bests. So I wondered what was next for me,” muses Shanti.

“It’s something that everybody has to go through at some point after school ends – they have to try and find their place in the world. So I was just trying to find a place that I could excel in, away from sports. It was quite scary because all this while, I saw myself as an athlete, then a sudden realisation came and I was like: Am I not an athlete anymore? And if I’m not, then who am I?” she adds.

One can imagine the pressure Shanti was under when faced with such uncertainty, given how her path as a sprinter had been paved for her since young. As one of Singapore’s track stars, she was expected to perform as nothing less. After all, she had been moulded at the Singapore Sports School, and received a diploma in sports and leisure management from Republic Polytechnic. So, being an athlete had always been a given.

“It was hard. I feel like I didn’t deal with it the best that I could. There were a lot of expectations on me. I tried not to let it get to me, but it definitely did. It took a long time for me to change my mindset. Only recently have I been able to accept it a little bit more, that I’m at a level where expectations are the norm. So I have to accept that my path is different from others, and I just have to find a way to make that work,” says Shanti.

I have to accept that my path is different from others, and I just have to find a way to make that work.

Making a mark

Shrunken wool blazer with matching hot shorts, knit cardigan, silk camisole and matching knickers (all worn underneath), leather belt, and cotton socks, Miu Miu
Wool jacket, Dior. Serpenti gold and diamond necklace, and matching bracelet, Bvlgari. Cotton knickers, stylist’s own

And make it work she did. She trudged on, focusing on what mattered the most – herself, her training, and her growth as an athlete. Staunch support from family and friends also helped to pull her through her darkest times.

“I don’t care so much about what people are saying about me anymore. The only thing I can do is to just do me – focus on myself and my training, day in, day out. I think that mindset helped me grow as an athlete too, to the point where I was feeling good enough to do well at my training sessions and competitions. I learnt to just take things as they come, since a lot of things aren’t within my control anyway,” points out Shanti.

One reminder of the challenges she had faced is a tattoo of the Olympic symbol near her right wrist. She had it inked last year, after attending the event in Tokyo, Japan. “After competing in the Olympic Games, I got the tattoo because I wanted to remember that I went through such a hard time when I was competing on the biggest stage of my athletic career. But I got through that, and if I can get through that, then I can get through anything else,” she says.

The youngest of four siblings is also grateful for the strong support system around her. Her parents have always encouraged her to pursue what she loves and her older sister, Valerie, 32, who was also a national sprinter, doles out relatable advice whenever she needs it. Shanti’s achievements on the track have
even inspired Valerie and her eldest sister, Shobana, 37, to write a children’s book titled Go Shanti Go!, based on her victory at the 2015 SEA Games.

“My sisters were in the stands that day, watching my race. Every time we talk about it, they will get so emotional. They were like, ‘Shanti, you brought everybody together. It was such a nice moment.’ And Valerie would get approached by people on the street, telling her that their kids were inspired by me. So my sisters wanted to find some way to remember those precious moments. Also, my other sister, Shobi, really enjoys writing. So they found an illustrator and the book came to life,” shares Shanti.

Another unwavering supporter is her lawyer boyfriend and fellow athlete, Tan Zong Yang, who came in third in the men’s 400m race at the recent SEA Games. His bronze medal was Singapore’s first in the event in 47 years. The 27-year-old started dating Shanti last year, after a four-year friendship.

“We both devote everything to training and competitions, even though we’re working adults now. We just try to understand what we are each going through, whether it’s having a bad day at work or during training. We just want to be there for each other because we both know what it feels like,” says Shanti with a bright smile.

I don’t care so much about what people are saying about me anymore. The only thing I can do is to just do me.

Looking forward

Knit turtleneck sweater, Moncler. Gold and diamond Tiffany T1 rings, Tiffany & Co.
Denim and cotton patchwork jacket, Polo Ralph Lauren. Cotton socks, Miu Miu. Leather mules, Manolo Blahnik. Cotton knickers, stylist’s own

The runner now juggles a packed daily routine, where discipline is key. During the day, she works as a writer for local content and media agency DC Creative. After work and on Saturday afternoons, she trains. It may sound tiring, but having a cause motivates her.

“My purpose is to compete and do the best that I can in what I’m good at. That’s what gets me up every morning, even though I have a hectic schedule. In a way, I enjoy it because that’s the kind of thing that I need to be happy,” stresses Shanti.

She hopes to make it to the 2024 Olympics in Paris, France. While she is unsure when her final run will be, she is certain that she wants to further her career in the media industry, given her interest in fashion and beauty.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to do something related to fashion. My sisters, my mum and I, we were into clothes and makeup. So even though I love track, I also love all these other things. That’s why I am really enjoying my job now, so I’ll probably be exploring that a bit more, whether it’s in the same field of writing or something else,” she says excitedly.

For now, Shanti just wants to inspire as many people as possible to pursue the things they love, no matter how unconventional they might be.

“Just go for it. At first, it may seem like the worst decision you’re going to make, and you will probably face a lot of backlash, especially if you choose to continue doing it for a long time. But when you’ve experienced the journey, you’re going to thank yourself for kicking it off because ultimately, you are doing what you love, and that’s making you happy. That’s what’s most important.”

Outfit, Miu Miu

PHOTOGRAPHY Wee Khim, assisted by Ivan Teo
HAIR & MAKEUP Sha Shamsi, using Dior Beauty and KMS