By Soh Kai Wee
IN JULY 1984, Prema Govindan ran a hand-timed 56.4 seconds for the 400 metres. She was the last Singaporean woman to go under 58sec.
Last Friday, Piriyah Thirunalkarasu of the Singapore Sports School finally breached the barrier.
She clocked 57.11sec to win the Girls’ B final at the Schools National Track and Field Championships.
Her time broke Dipna Lim Prasad’s 2007 electronically-timed meet record of 58.68 and the 1971 hand-timed record of Dennis Russell (58.50).
It is being verified as a national Under-17 record.
‘I finished third last year so I was quite disappointed,’ Piriyah said. ‘But I knew I could do it this year. I just kept pushing for the record.’
She also lowered the 400m hurdles meet record to 63.86sec. The previous mark of 66.99 was set by Dipna last year.
This feat was all the more commendable as she took up hurdling only a year ago and it is now her pet event.
While most athletes work to shave a split second off their personal bests, Piriyah has cut close to 4sec off her 400m time and more than 7sec off her 400m hurdles time in the past year.
Yet, Jenny Lim, the school’s general manager, insisted: ‘She is not the finished product. She still has a lot of potential to fulfil.’
She attributes Piriyah’s success to her height (1.72 metres) and an individualised coaching schedule.
The teenager has now set her sights on two long-standing national marks: Chee Swee Lee’s 1974 400m record of 55.08sec and Norshida Ali’s 1984 400m hurdles mark of 62.8sec.
But for her coach, Viatcheslav Vassiliev, breaking records is not that important. He said: ‘Piriyah is still young. She has a big future ahead of her.
‘Athletes usually peak in their 20s, so I don’t want to burn her out at such a young age. I want to save her for the future. Aiming for the 2012 Olympics is not unrealistic.’
Although Singapore is seeing an emergence of strong 400m runners with the likes of Valerie Pereira, Dipna and Shalom See, it still has a long way to go in meeting regional standards.
At last year’s South-east Asia Games, Thailand won the 4x400m in 3:38.26. Myanmar were second (3:40.60) and Vietnam third (3:43.90).
Each relay runner has to run below 56sec to stand a chance of bagging a medal.