Chee Swee Lee – the track queen who lost in Southeast Asia but conquered a continent

By Justin Kor and Prabhu Silvam

It was exactly the mid-way point of the 400m lap as Chee Swee Lee hurtled down her lane at the 1974 Asian Games, all four of her limbs pumping furiously.

Each powerful stride of her legs rapidly propelled her forward as she relentlessly pounded the surface, every forceful swing of her arms generating added momentum.

With 200m to go, she knew that she was on track for a good time. Endless rounds of training runs had calibrated her to judge her pace and exact position with pin-point accuracy.

The sprinter was so focused that she was momentarily deaf, despite the cheers of a few thousand spectators in the Azadi Stadium on that cool autumn day in Tehran, Iran.

“I couldn’t hear anything around me,” she recalled of that day 45 years later. “It was just pure silence, pure focus.”

It is a race that the 64-year old has repeatedly played over in her mind for over four decades – a race that saw her set a blistering time of 55.08 seconds as she powered towards an Asiad gold. History was made as she became the first Singaporean woman to achieve the feat at the Asian Games, setting a new Games and national record in the process.

For 43 years, no one could surpass Chee’s timing in the 400m. It was one of Singapore’s longest-standing record in an Olympic sport, until Dipna Lim-Prasad finally eclipsed it in 2017. Another of her national records, the 800m which she set in 1976, still stands to this day.

Chee’s record breaking run was a special one. In typical races, she would usually put on the afterburners in the last 100m. But in Iran’s capital city, she had altered her race strategy after consulting Israeli athlete Hana Shezifi – the then defending Asian Games champion in the 800m and 1500m.

Shezifi had advised her to burst early because of the unique set up of the Azadi track, where the curves were unusually long, and its straights conversely short.

On a conventional track, Chee would usually make the final push just before the bend straightens. But the longer curve meant she would have to go into overdrive earlier.

So with 150m to go, she decided to open up ahead of the rest of the pack. Her legs would have to fight the dreadful burn of lactic acid longer, and there was a risk of petering out before her opponents did.

But months of gruelling speed endurance training had prepared her exactly for this moment. At full flight, she gradually powered ahead of the rest of her seven competitors.

“I’m making my move and I’m realising that I’m catching up with everybody. There’s nobody around me in the last 50 metres – that’s how I won the gold medal,” she said.

Redemption year

Chee and her coach, Patrick Zehnder, in 1973 and 2019.

For Chee, the biggest victory of her athletics career was also a redemption of sorts. The motivation to win in Iran had stemmed from bitter disappointment.

Almost exactly a year before, she had missed out on gold at the 1973 Southeast Asian Peninsula (SEAP) Games on home soil in Singapore, after finishing with two silvers in the 400m and 800m events.

A disappointed Chee reassessed her objective with her long-time coach, Patrick Zehnder, and decided to dream even bigger. Their next target: An Asiad gold.

The aim seemed overly ambitious – Chee had not succeeded in even being the best in Southeast Asia, but she was now looking to conquer the entire continent. It was a seemingly ludicrous goal.

But the SEAP Games setback had only further fuelled her determination to succeed, and she was quietly confident. “By not having won the gold medal in Singapore, I was training very hard and taking myself to the next level.

“We had analysed the whole race, and now knew why I didn’t win. Training was now geared towards being stronger, better, and to win,” she said. From then on, every moment of her life was now geared towards that sole purpose.

Chee, who was then working at the Singapore Sports Council, would only have 10 minutes to eat lunch. The rest of her break was spent on circuit training in the gym. When work ended, there was only one place to head to – the track. But she did not see these as “sacrifices”, but “choices” instead.

Chee in her younger days

To build up her stamina and speed endurance on the track, she would engage in draining interval trainings of 400m sprints for up to 10 times, with only a minute’s rest in between. Gruelling 10km runs, to hone her distance running, were also a staple element.

“I think these kinds of training not only gave us the physical strength, but the mental capacity to handle the toughest of environments,” she explained.

A year later, Chee was ready for Iran, and Asia. The girl who lost out on two SEAP golds was no more. In her place instead was an athlete trained to the peak of her powers and hell-bent on completing her “mission” – to strike gold.

And she duly delivered in Tehran as she officially become Asia’s fastest female one-lap runner.

“It was the most fantastic feeling standing on the rostrum and listening to Majulah Singapura. That gold medal wasn’t only mine, it was Singapore’s,” she said shakily, the excitement of the moment still evident in her voice more than four decades later. “Mission accomplished.”

Chee was not the only Singapore track star who experienced success in Iran. On the whole, Singapore Athletics experienced one of its best showings at an Asian Games, hauling in a gold, a silver and two bronzes. Besides her then-record breaking run, the men’s 4x400m national record is also another mark set in Iran that stands to this day.

Records are made to be broken

Chee (centre) with her team mates from Mt San Antonio College

Today, Chee has since relocated to the United States, where she has married an American and established a career as a real estate agent. But her legacy still lives on in Singapore through her achievements and records set.

Her 400m record has since fallen, but her 800m mark of 2:07.4 still stands. She reckons, however, that it will also be eradicated soon.

“It is a great honour to still be holding a record today,” she said. “But do not doubt for a second that it is going to be there forever. There is probably another little 10-year-old girl out there, training like I did, who will one day break that record, and records are made to be broken. I think with Singapore’s emphasis on youth sports development, that person will come sooner than 43 years.

“It’s time for such an athlete to emerge. We have the facilities, we have the coaching, we just have to have the mindset that we’re willing to do that.”

Chee (right) receiving Singapore Master Athletics’ Lifetime Achievement Award from Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister of Manpower and Second Minister of Home Affairs. Photo: SMA