Open-water swimming: Liew hopes to end career on high by qualifying for Tokyo Games

SINGAPORE – After four years, it is the end of the road for open-water swimmer Chantal Liew, but she is looking to end this chapter of her life on a high – by becoming the first Singaporean to qualify for the Olympics in the sport.

Liew, 22, told local media in a virtual press conference on Tuesday (June 8) that she had planned to retire after the Tokyo Games last year. But the postponement of the Games saw her delay her swansong by a year as well.

The 2017 SEA Games silver medallist added it was not an easy decision but she wants to pursue a Master’s degree in human-computer interaction and find a job in the tech sector.

She said: “There are competitions every year so it’s very easy for swimmers to say ‘one more competition’, but you need to put your foot down and make a statement and say this is going to be my last year. If not, it can get dragged on forever.

“Now is a good time for me. I’m very passionate about things outside the pool but I’m still happy to swim and I love it. I just want to leave with a bang.”

Liew, and coach Marcus Cheah, will be leaving on June 13 for Portugal, where she will race in the Fina Olympic Marathon Swim Qualifier 2021 for a spot in the 10km event at the July 23-Aug 8 Tokyo Olympics.

To qualify, Liew will have to be the highest Asian finisher after hosts Japan and China, who qualified at the 2019 World Championships. A total of 15 slots each for the men and women’s events are up for grabs at the June 19-20 meet in Setubal.

Other Asian competitors include swimmers from Hong Kong, Thailand, Chinese Taipei and South Korea.

Liew said: “With open-water, anything can happen and it’s anyone’s game. I’ve been working with Marcus on specific things like building endurance and also working on some speed. We’re trying to cover all bases to make sure I’m ready as possible for anything that happens.”

Knowing she is going to retire soon, she said: “I’ve been approaching every single training session and opportunity to race with a lot more clarity and calmness. I just want to enjoy myself and make the most of everything.”

Cheah, also head coach of AquaTech Swimming, added: “It really boils down to the confidence level on the day itself and elements like water temperature. There’s only so much preparation you can do beforehand.

“We’re trying to get her as fit as possible because when she’s fitter, she’s more confident. When she’s more confident, she races in a more relaxed manner.”

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It is that uncertainty in open-water swimming that taught Liew the biggest lesson of learning to let go.

“When I was doing pool swimming, I was very caught up with working out every detail … counting the number of strokes and kicks and micro-managing every single aspect of my race,” said Liew, who previously swam in the freestyle and backstroke events.

“I was very unhappy towards the tail end of my pool swimming career because I was getting so obsessed and nit-picky about things. When I went into open-water, you can’t be obsessed about these things.

“It’s a 10km race that’s at least two hours long and there are so many other elements and factors. If there’s anything it’s taught me, it’s to trust yourself and trust the process. Don’t get caught up with all the details and just do your best.”

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Liew hopes her journey will raise the profile of the sport and added she would love to continue being a part of the community.

Pointing to the 2017 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games where she became the first Singapore woman to win a medal in the 10km open-water swim, she said: “That was very special, not just for me but also for Singapore. It’s great to take this sport to places it’s never been in Singapore.

“There’s potential for there to be an open-water swimming community, it’s just very young now and with the pandemic, it’s hard to get out there and conduct competitions.

“Hopefully in the coming years, the community will grow and I would love to continue being a part of it.”

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