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Singapore kayakers out to secure Paris Olympics berth after encouraging spell

Sore arms, calloused palms and blistered hands are par for the course in kayaking. But beyond the scars that remain long after the races, Singapore kayaker Stephenie Chen also had to endure the anguish of missing out on an Olympic spot by less than a second – twice.

In a bid to banish those demons, the 32-year-old has been hard at work on the Gold Coast in Australia as she prepares for the April 18-21 Asian canoe sprint Olympic qualifiers in Tokyo.

Two quota places – up from just one at the last qualifiers – are up for grabs as kayakers seek qualification for the Paris Games.

At the Asian Olympic qualifiers in Pattaya in May 2021, Chen missed out on a quota spot in the women’s singles K1 500m by just 0.938 of a second. She was second in 1min 54.649sec, with the winner, Kazakhstan’s Natalya Sergeyeva, clinching the sole spot.

It went even more agonisingly close a day later in the K1 200m, with a mere 0.067sec standing between her and a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.

She was third in 40.325sec, behind Kazakhstan’s Inna Klinova (40.123sec) and Japan’s Yuka Ono (40.258sec). As Kazakhstan had already clinched an Olympic spot, Ono claimed the K1 200m quota spot.

On the double whammy of 2021, Chen said: “It just made me a bit angrier. It made me really want to do better the next time. I missed out on both events by one place, so that was not fun.

“But I know that you can have losses, and that makes the wins a lot better. It did hurt, but I took learning lessons from all of my races and tried to improve.”

The improvement brought about a historic achievement in Hangzhou last October, when Chen won a maiden Asian Games silver.

“The performance at the Asian Games just shows me that I’m on the right track. But you don’t want to count your chickens before they hatch and Asia always has surprises. It is not a shoo-in for me to qualify, but the chances are good,” said Chen, who is looking to qualify in the K1 500m.

Another Singapore canoeist Lucas Teo is in the same boat, not literally, but the 33-year-old is just as determined to book his first Olympic spot.

As part of his preparation for April’s qualifiers, he took part in the Singapore Canoe Marathon at the Sports Hub’s Water Sports Centre, where close to 800 participants competed in the two-day event.

While he is looking to secure an Olympic spot in the men’s K1 1,000m, competing in the marathon allowed him to have a winning experience as he clinched the K1 28km event in 2hr 18min 9sec on Jan 20, ahead of 22 competitors.

Like Chen, Teo’s confidence was boosted at the Asiad, where he finished fifth out of nine in 3min 56.235sec, less than 5sec behind the bronze medallist.

A year earlier, Teo had won his second individual SEA Games canoeing gold – seven years after his first – in the men’s K1 1,000m in Hanoi.

Teo, who has been part of the national team since he was 16, said the difference between him and his Asiad rivals was power and strength. To close the gap, he has religiously hit the gym to beef up, while balancing his day job as a canoe coach.

Asked about his qualification chances, he said: “I will truly know only when I’m at the start line. But I am tracking my progress and working on weaknesses like my power and strength so that I will have a good chance.

“Every single competition I have had gives me more experience, so I’m always improving and I’m always getting better.”

National canoe coach Bill Lee is confident of Singapore securing an Olympic spot for the first time since London 2012, where Geraldine Lee clinched a K1 500m spot to become the Republic’s first Olympic canoeist.

Lee said: “Stephenie’s showing at the Asian Games gives us confidence, but we also do not want to be complacent. The key is to continue to do what works and build on the success.

“For our men, Lucas’ timing in Hangzhou was positive and very close to the top three. These performances have been encouraging, but qualifying for the Olympics is really not an easy feat.

“In Steph’s case, she missed by a hair’s breadth previously... you also sometimes need luck to be on your side.”