Seated among thousands of supporters in the Singapore National Stadium, a 17-year-old K. Jayamani watched in awe as athletes took to the field in the 1973 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games. Enchanted by the rapturous applause and cheers, the budding athlete longed to be on that coveted stage.

She had already one foot in the door. With her natural flair, she won her first medal when she was just a one-year-old infant — in a baby crawl competition. In time, her legs grew stronger and so did her ambition. As a student, she excelled in sports and soon developed a knack for running.

When she was 19, she made her debut in national level competitions at the Singapore Open. Although her results were not good, the experience proved valuable. “It made me realise that I had to work so much harder if I wanted to win medals,” she says.

That realisation not only marked a turning point in her career. It would come to define her road to success. In just a few short years, she, under coach Maurice Nicholas, would go on to win regional medals in her pet events (1500m and 3000m), earning her the nickname “Queen of the Track”.

She was named Sportswoman of the Year in 1977 and 1981. In 1982, she clocked national records for both the 1500m (4:31.2) and 3000m (9:56.6) — records which are still unbroken today.

Jayamani’s crowning moment was at the 1983 SEA Games, where she came full circle to realise her dream of competing on home soil. Pumped and raring to go, the track star had only one goal — to win the 1500m and 3000m.

However, her confidence vanished when she crossed the finish line in both events slower than expected. There was no gold — indeed not any medal at all. A dejected Jayamani left the track wondering what she did wrong.

It is one thing to perform at the prime of your career. It’s another to come back from defeat and claim victory when the chips are down. After failing to clinch medals in her favourite races, Jayamani had just one more event left to compete — the inaugural SEA Games marathon.

This was a long shot from the start. The race would only be her third marathon in seven years. She recalls, “I was selected to run the marathon as a form of support. It was the first time it featured in the Games. I never had expectations for it.” But after losing two gold medals on the track, she was upset. Instead of being down, however, she posed herself a new challenge. “I told myself I just had to do it (win the marathon),” she recalls.

And she did just that. With a timing of 3:02.46, she rose above her disappointment to clinch gold — ahead of pre-race favourite, Thai runner Yupin Lohachart (3:04.23), and Myanmar’s Mar Mar Min (3:11.01).

Jayamani’s unexpected marathon win not only made history. It showed that there can be successful second acts. In the world of sports, as it is in life, it’s not how you start but how you finish. As she puts it, “Running a race from start to finish, a lot of changes can happen. Life is like that too. Nothing is perfect but you can always find out what has gone wrong and fix the imperfections.”

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