Setting tracks ablaze

Ipoh-born Shereen Vallabouy is setting tracks blazing as Malaysia’s third-fastest woman over 400m.

Jun 24, 2022

By Gwen Manickam

Ipoh-born Shereen Vallabouy is setting tracks blazing as Malaysia’s third-fastest woman over 400m.

Shereen clocked 52.68s at the US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II track and field outdoor championships at the end of May. She stands behind the late Rabia Abdul Salam, who held the number one spot for 29 years, followed by Josephine Mary Singarayar, Shereen’s Olympian mother, as the only Malaysian female athletes to drop below 53 seconds in the 400m.

According to its official athletics site, this Winona State University senior is the first athlete from their track and field team to become an outdoor champion of the 400m race at the national level. Shereen holds the all-time best record in the 400m at the university — 52.68 (outdoors) and 53.37 (indoors). She is also currently the fastest 200m runner ever at Winona State, with a time of 23.52.

The younger of two girls, 24-year-old Shereen comes from a line of national athletes. Her father, Samson Vallabouy’s 800m timing of 1:48.29s in 1989 remains the oldest record in Sea Games men’s athletics, while her mother, Josephine, is a former middle-distance sensation and national elite coach. Her older sister Jocelyn retired from the sport when she turned 21.

Shereen’s love for track began at age 12, after a district meet. She shared her budding desire with her mother, who started training her the following year. At 15, Shereen realised she wanted to take her passion for the sport up a notch. The next year, she transferred from the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Ipoh, to Bukit Jalil Sports school, where she studied and trained with the national team for two and a half years.

Furthering her education in the US was Shereen’s only option as she could combine studies and sports. The family chose Winona State as her mother’s friend Liew Wai Hon was there. He spoke to the university coach about her athletic skills. The coach helped Shereen with the necessary paperwork to secure her student visa and university application, which was a tedious and complicated process for the young athlete. Unfortunately, Winona State would not accept any pre-university credits earned in Malaysia, so Shereen started her undergraduate degree from scratch. Her original major was Physical Education, but in her second year, she switched to Recreation and Tourism, which she hopes to graduate with, next year.

During the school year, Shereen attends classes Monday to Friday, and after classes, she trains four times a week. The enterprising young lady also works part-time at the campus gym, minding the front desk to earn some pocket money. “Sometimes it’s hard to juggle, but I manage. Now it’s summer so I don’t have classes, and I can concentrate on training and mentally preparing for the upcoming games.”

The US-based sportswoman who is making waves in her field, told The HERALD that Jesus, and praying regularly, helps her amidst uncertainties. “Believing in God and trusting the process helps me, especially in sports when you don’t know what’s going to happen next, or if I have an injury or just a bad day.

“Before the national meet last month, I had a mild hamstring tightness and had to miss several training sessions. I was worried I would not be able to run well but praying helped keep me on track.”

The sprinter, who lives off-campus with two local roommates, enjoys being in the US. “Here, I am mentally happy and that helps with my training as well. I like the culture and how the school system works. The community is very helpful. I also like training here; it’s a lot of fun, and I feel united with them.”

Shereen gives God thanks and glory for her family and for the ability to further her education and sporting career in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

In April 2019, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and that took a toll on the family, including financially. Holding firm to their faith and trust in God, Josephine has recovered.

As the family struggled to meet Shereen’s out-of-pocket expenses in the US, blessings came through a substantial donation from Berjaya Corporation Berhad founder, Tan Sri Vincent Tan. The philanthropist pledged US$52,000 (RM228,000) financial backing as Shereen pursues academic and sporting excellence. His charity organisation, Better Malaysia Foundation (BMF), will support her living expenses and other costs for the duration of her studies at Winona State.

Shereen said the best part about being in the US is the relationships created. “I love the track team I train with. When I first got here, I was nervous, especially being so far away from home, but the relationship I built with friends, now makes me feel like I am at home. And it brought me out of my comfort zone.”

Besides Minnesota, Shereen loved her visits to New York City and California. In four years, she has not found an American dish she likes. The foodie satisfies her cravings for Asian food by watching YouTube videos and learning to cook dishes like char kuey teow and Thai chicken curry.

Shereen did not join this year’s SEA Games in May as it clashed with the NCAA meet. However, she is training for the Commonwealth Games and the World Championship in July, although she has not received confirmation on whether she qualifies to join the Malaysian team.

(It’s a golden finish for Shereen at the recent US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II track and field outdoor championships.)

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