The four-room Yishun flat in Singapore that Jacter Singh, 61, once shared with the late Lydia de Vega is mostly quiet now, the silence interrupted by the occasional chirping bird or roar of traffic. The apartment is immaculately kept, with smooth wooden flooring. On the wall hangs an altar with figurines of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, as well as the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak, testament to the couple's different faiths.
"We bought a condo in Melaka for our retirement. We had many, many plans ahead," said Singh wistfully as he showed Yahoo Philippines two photo albums. Here a shot of de Vega in her prime as the fastest woman in Asia, there a loving snapshot with her children Stephanie and Jonathan.
But the ones that stand out are of Singh and de Vega, 18 and 15 at the time, at the place where it all began: the 1979 Asean Schools Track and Field Championships in Singapore, where she caught the eye of many. "The boys were all admiring her. 'Wah this Filipino girl is very pretty'", said Singh, smiling at the memory.
Coincidentally, the Filipino and Singaporean contingents were housed on the same level of the now defunct Sea View Hotel. The pair got talking and eventually became a couple, corresponding from long-distance and meeting at regional competitions.
However, Singh's mother objected, as Sikhs are traditionally only allowed to marry other Sikhs. “In my younger days, I was keen to move on with her, but I am from a traditional family.”
The couple eventually broke up after six years. But that was not the end of the story for the boy from Singapore and the Filipina who went on to become a national icon.
A storied romance
For 17 years, Singh lived with de Vega in Singapore after she split from her husband, entrepreneur Paolo Mercado. They also worked together at Singh's JS Athletics, which provides private athletics coaching for students.
On paper, she was still married to Mercado, father of their three children, including professional volleyball player Stephanie de Koenigswarter. Their 4-year-old son John Michael died in an automobile accident in 2001.
According to Singh, de Vega had not been in touch with Mercado for many years and sought to annul the marriage several times. This was curtailed by her illness, as well as the disruptions brought about by the pandemic. Divorce remains illegal in the Philippines.
When we got back (together) in 2003, (I was) over the moon. This is my first love.
“The family all knows, we were like husband and wife,” said Singh, a former national long-distance running champion and SEA Games medalist who is divorced. He married a Singaporean traditional Sikh girl in 1988 and had a son with her before they split up in 2003. "When my marriage broke down, I told my mother: you stopped me from loving a Catholic girl, look what happened."
In the intervening years after their break up, de Vega and Singh had only kept in touch occasionally, looking each other up whenever they were in Singapore or Manila. But they reconnected in 2003, before eventually moving in together in 2005.
"When we got back (together) in 2003, (I was) over the moon. This is my first love," said Singh, who added that de Vega became very close to his mother, who has since passed on.
Virgie Alegre, 59, an old friend of de Vega's who spoke to her almost daily, told Yahoo Philippines, "I said to her, I think the two of you are meant to be together. I always teased her like that."
'A really down to earth person'
At the height of her fame, de Vega's face was plastered on billboards all over the country, as the face of the popular energy drink Milo and two dairy brands.
But the Meycauayan native had no airs about her, said Singh. "There was no (pride) in her. She would talk to anyone. She will never look down on her opponent."
And even though she was a famous figure from a young age – she struck SEA Games gold aged just 16 in 1981 and won two Asian Games 100m golds in 1982 and 1986 – she would be the one carrying Singh's belongings whenever they were together, even decades later.
As a coach, while she was strict with students, de Vega would bring biscuits to training sessions to ensure that students did not go hungry.
She [Lydia de Vega] was very loving with everybody.
Alegre, who works in retail, cherishes a Kipling backpack that de Vega gave her in January, when they were meant to be celebrating the latter's birthday. "She hugged me and told me, 'I want you to remember me forever.' I always carry that bag. I feel that she is always with me."
Ojon, 54, first met de Vega in 1992 while working at the Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association. They kept in touch after her move to Singapore and he would occasionally stay with the couple while visiting the city-state. "Lydia is like a legend in the Philippines. She is well respected and idolised by the athletes, but she is very easy to talk to. She’s not a diva or a prima donna. Even when she’s talking to ordinary people, she’s very kind, always humble."
A 'devastating' cancer diagnosis
In January 2018, a check up revealed that de Vega had breast cancer. "I think upfront, she was just showing a brave side of her," recalled Singh. "But for me, I broke down. Then she told me, 'Jack, don't worry. That is part and parcel of life. We have to fight, we have to go through it.'"
There then followed endless rounds of medication and chemotherapy and medical appointments, but her condition remained stable. Then in March 2022, de Vega surprised Singh with a request, "When can I go back? I don’t want my family to blame you for sending me late."
Singh agreed and helped her pack for her trip in April despite his misgivings. "My feeling was something is not right, but I just kept it to myself. It seems that she sensed things were about to happen."
In June, he went to Manila to spend 10 days with her, where her children warned that de Vega had lost a lot of weight. "When I saw her, I was about to cry but I hold back. (She started getting better while I was there), so I thought she was on the road to recovery."
'Always remember I love you'
Asked what was the last thing de Vega said to him, Singh broke down in tears at the memory of the telephone conversation in June. "She is the one who called me up. She said, 'Jack, always remember I love you. You got to take care of yourself.' I said, 'No, I cannot live without you.'"
"Those are the last words I have spoken to her. But I didn't know that will be the last words meant for me."
In July, Singh rushed to Manila at Stephanie's request as de Vega had to have an operation to remove fluid from her brain. Thereafter, she lapsed into unconsciousness and could not speak, even though she could still open her eyes at times. "I said, Diay, I know this is the biggest test of your life, but you got to fight."
Diay, you're my angel. Please guide me. Please protect me and support me till we meet again.
Singh returned to Singapore on August 1, with plans to return to Manila on August 26.
But it was not to be: Stephanie broke the news to him on August 10 that de Vega had passed.
Asked what he would have said if he could have met de Vega one last time, Singh broke down again. "Every day at the wake, I will tell her, 'Diay, you're my angel. Please guide me. Please protect me and support me till we meet again.'"
He added, "Even though I'm alone now, I always will call for her. 'Diay, where are you?' I really miss her a lot."