It was like having the rug pulled from underneath her feet … or being blindsighted and getting hit by a curve ball. Nothing could be more demoralising at that point in her career, but Malaysian Olympian synchronised swimmer Zylane Lee was dealt a crushing blow when partner Katrina Ann Hadi opted to retire from the sport suddenly.

“It was very demotivating when she retired without any notice. We were preparing for the Olympic qualifiers and my dreams just went down the drain in a split second. I only got the chance to work with her for a year … at that time we were still getting used to each other’s approach,” shared Lee, recently.

Rather than let fate knock her off her saddle, the 25-year-old soldiered on with a new partner, meaning, there was some returning to the ol’ drawing board.

Her new wingwoman is Gan Hua Wei, an 18-year-old who brings a different style to the table, coaxing Lee to make some adjustments, though a collective goal remains – winning the ultimate accolade at KL 2017, the 29th SEA Games in Malaysia. So, how is the new pair getting along?

“So far, so good. Both Katrina and Hua Wei have their own talents. We are working towards what the judges want to see, rather than following our hearts and doing what swimmers like,” she said. The duo are favourites to sweep the first three gold medals at the games in solo and duet events. And honing their trade at the 7th Open Make Up Forever Synchronised Swimming Championships in France, China Open in Taiyuan and Japan Open in Tokyo this year, can only put them in good stead.

However, well before Lee even arrived at the point where she was holding her breath underwater and engaging in a unique upside down dance, she was just a tyke who tagged along with her sister to mum’s synchronised swimming lessons. “I was five when I got into synchro. My mum taught me the basics when I got chosen to represent the country. At that time, synchro was still new, so, I was the only one in my school who was into it.”

Synchronised swimmers Zylane Lee (right) and Gan Hua Wei are expected to begin the gold haul for Malaysia at KL 2017 SEA Games.

Something about it drew her in more than swimming or diving. “Synchro is different. We need to be able to swim like a swimmer and do stunts like a diver. So, synchro is more like swimming and diving combined, with music like the cherry on top of a cake,” Lee revealed, choosing her words carefully to describe the sport.

What might have merely seemed like an aquatic preoccupation soon turned into more. She learnt that dancing was part and parcel of a synchronised swimmer’s bag of tricks. “Before I started, I didn’t have any background in dance. I started to swim just after I learnt to walk. After years of synchro and the help of the National Sport Council (MSN), ballet classes were provided as part of our training,” she explained.

Her development training was far breezier than the rigours of today; “When I started, my sessions were just three times a week. When I began representing the country, it got intense, and now, I train at least eight hours a day, six times a week. Sessions on public holidays will be even longer.”

While the physicality of the sport itself looks difficult, what with the submerged pirouettes, leg waves and what not, there are some hidden challenges that really test the human spirit, but Lee has figured out how to literally grin and bear it. “Everything in my sport is challenging, from holding our breaths to staying upside down in the water while letting our legs move. And please don’t forget, when we compete, we don’t wear goggles. With our burning eyes and screaming lungs, we still need to smile throughout the whole routine,” she said, describing the agony one has to endure in the name of synchronised swimming.

A synchro swimmer needs to be backed by a variety of qualities and abilities, and Lee reckons she’s got what it takes. After all, she is representing the country. “Discipline and persistence. I’ve gone through so many ups and downs, and since I’ve been able to continue and get this far, I think I have both those qualities,” offered the Bachelor Of Science and Food Technology degree holder.

It’s only natural for a sportsperson to look at another in the same event for inspiration, but Lee’s source of motivation comes from a person who thrashes it out in a court, instead. “Datuk Nicol (David). She’s a very down-to-earth person. She takes failure to another level … in a positive way, to get back to the top,” she said, lauding Malaysia and the world’s squash queen.

When not sending her lungs to bursting point at various aquatic centres, the KL native enjoys travelling, scuba diving, wind surfing and rock climbing. For now, it’s about going for gold at the upcoming SEA Games.