A month after placing 11th at the Youth Olympic Games triathlon, the whole experience still seems distant and unreal for Emma Middleditch.

And rightly so; her Singapore citizenship was approved barely a week before the YOG qualifier in Subic Bay last June. As if the time crunch wasn’t enough of a variable, the hurricane warning in Subic threatened to cancel the qualifying race.

The qualifier was eventually converted to a duathlon, which Emma won against the rest of the Asian region. She was on her way to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Three months to prepare for the biggest competition of her life. Plenty of time, right?

“Before I knew it, the summer holidays were over, I was back at school, and I only had about a month to go,” said Emma, who took ten days off after the qualifiers before resuming practice.

While she was itching to squeeze in as much training as possible to be race-ready, her father and coach, James, was more concerned with getting her to the start line injury-free and acclimatizing her to her first wetsuit swim.

“Sometimes, less is more,” said Emma.

The triathlon was scheduled on the first day of the Games, which proved to be a mad rush for Emma and James. A 40-hour flight to Argentina via Auckland left Emma with only three days to adjust to the 11-hour time difference and shake out two nights of being on a plane.

“It’s tempting to get pulled off track by copying the other athletes or trying to do one more session, but you have to remain focused, stick to your tapering plan and ignore what’s going on around you,” said James.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – OCTOBER 07: Emma Ada Middleditch of Singapore warms up before competing in swimming competes during the Women`s Triathlon Event at Green Park on October 07, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Recalling the race of a lifetime

“Number 3, Emma Ada Middleditch, Singapore!”

James was filled with pride as he watched his daughter run down the blue-carpeted pontoon in a black wetsuit. While the coach dealt with the nerves in anticipation of the start gun, the athlete was too excited to feel nervous, revelling in the enormity of what she was about to do.

The plan was to stick with the pack on the swim and bike legs before hammering the run, which is traditionally Emma’s strongest element. During the swim, Emma momentarily panicked when she realized she was bringing up the rear. She knew that if she got dropped, catching up would be a chore. Especially by herself.

“This can’t be it,” Emma told herself. “You’ve worked so hard to get yourself here. You can’t stop here.”

Emma emerged from the swim second last, two minutes after the first swimmer emerged. Peeling off the wetsuit was a cumbersome process, even for other athletes who probably had more experience wearing one. Wetsuit off, helmet on, out of transition within a minute.

By the second transition, Emma had moved up from trailing the field to within striking distance of the top 10. The next two laps were her moment to shine.

As Emma ran alongside Belgian Hanne Peters and Mexican Sofia Rodriguez Moreno, James got increasingly excited at Emma’s progression through the field. He yelled out splits and words of encouragement, but his words were swallowed by the cheering crowd while Emma dug into her reserves to keep up with the group’s fast pace.

“I’m not going to give up now,” Emma chanted.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – OCTOBER 07: Emma Ada Middleditch of Singapore competes during the Women`s Triathlon Event at Green Park on October 07, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Emma’s final surge down the finish chute was just enough to pass Moreno, but Peeters was a little too far ahead. Though Emma was two seconds away from her goal of the top ten, she and James were more thrilled that they had finally realized the YOG dream. Father and daughter, coach and athlete, proceeded to embrace at the finish line and let out a cry of joy.

Post-YOG immersion and reflection

The upside to racing on the first day of the Games? Being able to enjoy the rest of the Games worry-free.

Emma’s typical day starts at 6:30 am, which consists of nine hours at the French School of Singapore, 90 minutes of travelling both ways, a two-hour practice session and just over an hour on homework before heading to bed around 10 pm.

After her event, Emma and James watched other sports that they otherwise wouldn’t have sought out in their limited free time – swimming, cycling, beach volleyball, gymnastics, speed skating, among many others.

“Understanding and watching other sports is important for young athletes,” said James, who also networked with foreign triathlon coaches.

While the Olympics remains the bigger end-goal, James is more concerned with developing Emma at her own pace and keeping her academics in check.

“Triathlon is a sport where the peak years are still a long way off,” said James. “The next step would be getting ITU points and getting to the Grand Finals; there are the SEA games and then other major games too.”

“My biggest takeaway (from the YOG) is that there is no right or wrong way to training and achieving your goals. Believe in yourself and keep focused on your journey.”