Meet the coach who lit the spark in sprint queen Shanti Pereira
PHNOM PENH – There are some moments you cannot forget.
For Luis Cunha, it was an incident on November 28, 2014.
He had just been unveiled as Singapore’s sprint and hurdles head coach at the Singapore Sports Institute (SSI), when a senior Singapore Athletics official stood up in the middle of a press session to voice his displeasure at Cunha’s appointment.
Too shocked then to react to this bizarre introduction to life in Singapore, the Portuguese knew then that there was only one way to silence the doubters – through his work.
And almost a decade later, Cunha has achieved it after his protege Shanti Pereira clinched a historic sprint double in the 100m and 200m in Cambodia on Friday.
“Of course, I remember that (incident),” Cunha, 58, who is now deputy director at SSI on top of his role as sprints and relays head coach, said in an earlier interview with The Straits Times.
“It was nothing personal. But there were some coaches and people there that believed that Singapore does not need a foreign coach.
“Of course, you want to prove to people your worth. I don’t know if I was confident but I had the hope that I could do something for athletics here. And after nine years, I think I can be happy with what I have done.”
Cunha, a former sprinter who competed at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, has groomed some of Singapore’s best athletes. He also worked with Calvin Quek (400m hurdles), Dipna Lim-Prasad (400m, 400m hurdles), Tan Zong Yang (400m) and Elizabeth-Ann Tan (100m, 200m) to produce personal bests or historic medals at the Games, as well as the men’s 4x100m relay teams.
He has coached Pereira since January 2020, noting that they are “working on the details and how we can improve 1 per cent”.
He said: “Going full-time has changed her. Now we are able to ensure she has the best recovery, the best sleep and the best preparation.”
Pereira may be special but her coach stresses that he tries “to treat all my athletes the same”.
He said: “But she knows what I think of her... we understand each other and we have respect. She wants to be the best and I know she does all she can.
“She has already made history this year with her records, so let’s see what else she can do.”
Low key and humble, Cunha is nothing like his countryman Jose “Special One” Mourinho though.
In fact, he requested during the interview for his athletes’ achievements not be linked to him. He said: “I have always wanted to be low-profile. It is not about me. The athletes work very hard. That must be clear.”
When he is not working hard to improve his athletes, Cunha’s time is spent with his wife Maria, with whom he has two sons aged 27 and 29 who are working in Europe. He makes it a point to have meals with her – during the work week, he makes a 10-minute ride home on bicycle from his office in Kallang so that they can lunch together.
He also enjoys catching his hometown football club Benfica live on TV and watches tennis, basketball and sports documentaries – Netflix’s Drive To Survive series on Formula One is his guilty pleasure.
His obsession, however, is improving his athletes as he pours over their data religiously – he has data from every single race Pereira has run. The information is laid out in Excel spreadsheets and, when needed, is converted into graphics so his athletes can understand them better.
A former lecturer at the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Human Kinetics before he became head coach (sprints/relays) at the Portuguese Athletic Federation, he also pores over information from research papers weekly.
Nothing should be left to chance or luck, he believes. He even requests for his athletes to send him information on how many hours of sleep they are getting each day and the colour of their urine to check on their state of hydration.
He said: “The idea is to control what we can control. In athletics, each athlete has a lane for themselves. It’s not like in football where you can go and tackle the other competitors.
“So as a coach, I want to make sure the athlete is doing all he or she can to keep producing their best. I need to find ways to make them better.”
And as Pereira crossed the line first at the Morodok Techo National Stadium in Phnom Penh to earn a spot in Singapore’s history books, Cunha must have been proud.
And now, he can make her go even quicker.