Nepal’s Gaurika Singh, the youngest of the more than 10,000 competitors at Rio 2016, overcame a slight technical hitch to win her 100m backstroke heat.
Aged 13 years and 255 days, the London-based Singh was no doubt feeling a little nervous ahead of her first taste of Olympic competition, especially with a ripped swimsuit to contend within the minutes leading up to her heat.
Unable to bring her regular coach, Rhys Gormley, to Rio, she had to confer with him by mobile phone on how to deal with the mishap. “He's been texting me and sending me instructions,” Singh explained. “I had to ask him whether or not I should change it [the suit]. I was trying to pull it up and my nail went through the suit.”
One costume change later, Singh went out and beat her two opponents, though not in a time fast enough to progress further in the event. Nevertheless, she was thrilled to have her name up in lights in Rio: “It was amazing just looking up on that board and seeing my time.”
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Resident in England since the age of two, it takes more than a wardrobe malfunction to unsettle the teenager, who happened to be in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, for the country’s national swimming championships, when it was hit by the devastating April 2015 earthquake.
Singh was caught on the fifth floor of a building during the 7.8-magnitude quake, which claimed 9,000 victims. Recalling the experience before the Games, she said: “It was terrifying. We sheltered under a table for 10 minutes in the middle of the room and had to go down the stairs afterwards amid the aftershocks. Fortunately, it was a new building so it did not collapse.
“I felt so grateful that I was able to survive that terrible earthquake,” she added. “Just to be here and try and make my country proud is amazing.”
A friend of her father's subsequently set up a charity to rebuild schools in Nepal, and the young swimmer was determined to play her part by donating her winnings from the restaged championships. “They made me a goodwill ambassador,” said Singh, who returns to Nepal about once a year to visit family.
On the visit two years ago she was allowed to compete in the Nepal championships, aged 11. Competing in one of Kathmandu’s two 50-metre pools, she broke seven national records, prompting thoughts that she might make the Olympics.
“I wanted to go but wasn’t sure I’d be able to because I’d be too young,” she explained. “When I found out a month ago, it was a big shock.”
As the intrepid Singh explained after winning her race, she has also had the shock of seeing one of her swimming idols, Australia’s Mitch Larkin, in person in Rio: “When I was training here, Mitch was in the lane next to me. I tried to speak to him but nothing came out of my mouth.”After everything she has achieved and experienced so far in her eventful life, Singh can be excused for feeling a little starstruck on the glittering Olympic stage.