A woman with small shoes who left a big footprint

4 days ago 42

In Las Vegas, a 68-year-old real estate agent holds a unique piece of Singapore history. In 18 Asian Games since 1951, Chee Swee Lee, the 400m runner, is the only Singaporean woman to win a gold in track and field.

Heroes wrinkle. Youth flees. Shoes gather dust. Memories fade. But one thing remains forever. The epics they write.

In the Mojave Desert in America lives a Singaporean woman who wears small shoes (size 5, Euro) but left an epic footprint on history. A woman who sells fine homes in Las Vegas, a place where they possibly don’t know who she is. Don’t know about her famous lunch breaks. Don’t know this 68-year-old is the greatest female track athlete Singapore has produced.

If they asked Chee Swee Lee, what a story she would tell. About a long time ago when she dealt with a different sort of real estate. A piece of circular land which was priceless. Land that couldn’t be bought, but with uncommon talent could be conquered.

Her land was the 400m track, which on one brilliant September day in 1974 became her property. At the Asian Games in Tehran, Chee ran around this oval in an Asian record of 55.08 seconds to win gold. In 18 Games since 1951, only one other Singaporean – Ng Liang Chiang in the men’s 110m hurdles in 1951 – has won track and field gold. 

Footprints matter for they are proof of where a nation has been. They become an inspiration and turn into a challenge. As the Asian Games approaches, among the things, Shanti Pereira will be chasing the legend of Chee.

“The thrill” of track and field, Chee wrote to me, was the uniqueness of her competition: Her, alone, against rivals and a clock. As a young runner she had moderate success in the 100m and 200m before her coach Patrick Zehnder convinced her she could excel at the 400m. Now she says, &ld...

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