A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

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They might have a long way to go in the sports arena, but they are certainly giving their all.

Mention squash and Datuk Nicol David comes to mind for most of us. The longest reigning world No. 1 (a whopping 108 consecutive months!) until September last year, since turning professional in 2000, Nicol shows no sign of slowing down.

While her prowess as a squash player speaks for itself, it is her character that shines through: former Felda United player Ndumba Makache commended Nicol’s incredible humility while he was undergoing an intensive rehabilitation programme alongside her at the National Sports Institute (ISN) in February this year. “For a person who’s achieved so much, she’s very humble and down to earth, which was great to see,” he says1.

Arguably the most decorated player in the history of women’s squash, Nicol attributes her ability to stay grounded in the face of international acclaim to her family, friends, as well as her supporters in Malaysia and abroad. “I’m just an athlete looking to achieve my full potential. When in Malaysia, the recognition I get is a real bonus. My friends and family remind me of where I come from, and their love transfers whenever I meet people,” she says.

On top of that, Nicol’s parents, Desmond and Ann Marie, are her sports heroes. “My dad used his knowledge of playing hockey, football and athletics to develop my potential in sports while my mum taught me to study and play sports without any expectations,” she says. Most importantly, there was no pressure to perform: “They both told me that we should do our best, we can’t do better than that. As long as we enjoy everything we do, nothing else matters.”

Success Begins With Hard Work

Nicol’s training regime is marked by long hard hours of practice under the tutelage of Australian Liz Irving, a renowned former squash player who held the No. 2 ranking back in 1988. Nicol, who was then just a fresh high school graduate, moved to Amsterdam with her parents’ blessing to begin her training.

“My training instantly took a 360-degree turn and I went back the basics in order to develop the proper techniques, movements, tactics and strength to compete in international tours,” says Nicol. Her training sessions consist of two to four hours of practice twice a day, six days a week. This regime, backed by Irving’s professional experience, proved key to Nicol’s ascent to the top of the squash world.

Nicol has come to regard Irving as her biggest influence. “She’s a true mentor with the kindest heart. That has kept our working relationship the way it is until now, over 13 years,” she fondly says.

Nicol has shown a remarkable ability to steer clear of the injuries that commonly plague professional players. She attributes this to her sports therapist, provided by the National Sports Institute of Malaysia, who travels with her to six to eight tournaments for pre-match preparation and post-match recovery. “I was also taught to rest well, train accordingly and listen to my body to give it the recovery it needs,” she says.

Passion to Carry On

Shortly after becoming the first player to win the World Junior Championships twice in 1999 and 2001, Nicol embarked on a remarkable journey that would later make her the undisputed champion with a win percentage of 90.5% (304 wins, 32 losses). This includes winning eight World Open titles, six Asian Games gold medals and, most notably, holding on to the No. 1 spot for a record nine years, beating New Zealand’s Susan Devoy’s record of 105 months2.

However, Nicol’s highly illustrious career has not been without heartbreaks. Last year proved to be a tough one for the “Queen of Squash” when she lost her No. 1 ranking to Raneem El Welily in September, sending shockwaves across Malaysia. Two months later, Nicol failed to retain her Qatar Classic title against Egypt’s Nour El-Sherbini, signifying the fifth consecutive time she has failed to advance into the finals of a major tournament.

Even so, Nicol finds a silver lining in these setbacks: “Now I have better appreciation for all that I’ve achieved and I’ll compete with a full perspective and approach towards reaching my best performance each time I step into the court,” she says.

While facing tough competition from El Welily and Laura Massaro, she also lists upand- coming talents as competitors; younger players are getting into the top 10, particularly Egyptian players who have taken the level of uncertainty in winning major titles a notch higher by dominating half of the top 20 list. “This uncertainty has always been there and nothing actually changes,” Nicol concedes. “It’s all a matter of what goes on at the tournament.”

Bid for the Olympics

Ever since picking up squash at the tender age of eight, Nicol’s thirst for raising the bar for the sport has not abated. It was therefore no surprise when she announced that she would campaign hard for squash to be included in the Olympics games, going as far as to say that she would willingly trade her eight World Open titles for a gold Olympic medal3.

As the campaign gained momentum, more prominent athletes joined in as well. Personalities such as Roger Federer and Malaysia’s Datuk Lee Chong Wei lent their support to its cause. The bid failed for the London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, but it was the failure to get it into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics that was disheartening. Squash was again rejected, this time on the grounds that it was neither spectator-friendly nor economical4.

Though disappointed, Nicol firmly believes that squash deserves a spot in the Olympics. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve missed out on the Olympic Games, but huge steps have also been made especially in the area of spectator viewership and the high quality of broadcasting and reach around the world.

Beyond Sports

Ever since 2002, Nicol has been the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Malaysia, an offshoot organisation under the UN which tackles social issues ranging from poverty to youth development.

“My role in the UNDP is to create awareness about current global issues that Malaysia faces today by sharing the UNDP Millennium Development Goals through campaigns, social media activities and mission trips to rural areas.” She plans to be involved in more projects whenever she’s in Malaysia. “I hope to reach out to more youths and give them a chance to address these issues themselves.”

And the Future Looks Bright…

Low Wee Wern: Home-Grown Talent

Nicol David is a household name, but hot on her heels is 25-year-old Low Wee Wern, who has 19 Junior titles to her name (including three Asian Junior Championships – a feat no Malaysian since Nicol has accomplished) and is ranked second in the country only after Nicol herself, before injuries halted her momentum.

“I started squash at the age of eight as a hobby and weekend activity,” she recalls. “As a kid, I was pretty active and didn’t like to sit still, so my mum gave me an option of picking up either squash or tennis. I picked squash, partly because it’s indoors and I didn’t have to worry about rain or shine, as is the case with tennis!”

Low Wee Wern.

She first represented Penang at age 10, then Malaysia the following year. Winning multiple championships, including the British Junior Open, led her to become a full-time professional squash player at the age of 17. Since then, she has won seven Women’s Squash Association titles and was a quarterfinalist in the Women’s World Open from 2010 to 2013, and broke into the top 10 in the world, rising as high as fifth, before she tore her anterior cruciate ligament, sidelining her for the 2014/2015 season.

Low recently concluded a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, an effort to show how powerful social media marketing can be and demonstrate how it can add value to athletes and sponsors. “The funds are to build a website that solves a disconnect between my fans and sponsors. On top of that, I want to challenge and change the current sports endorsements legacy system. And for my fans, a reward system that gives back to them for every share or post they make is something I could never do before. This is a proven return on investment and a win-win situation between sponsors and fans.”

Arguably the most notable part of Low’s story is that she is a truly home-grown talent, trained entirely in Penang at the Nicol David International Squash Centre. “We have a great setup here, the academy with dedicated coaches who want to see the players from Penang succeed, and that makes a huge difference even though we don’t have much financial support.”

But in spite of Malaysia’s success in the world of squash, there’s not a lot of coverage – something Low believes should be rectified. “In general, I think squash needs to be seen by the public a lot more, be it on TV, online, live or even delayed telecast. It is rare to be able to watch squash on TV here in Malaysia, even when we have top players competing in world-class events. With this, the public viewing of squash will increase tremendously and people will start taking interest in the sport. Once that happens, parents will start encouraging their kids to learn squash and that is when the inclusion of squash in schools will take off. I feel that we too need to have more top class squash events here in Malaysia so that our people can see it and experience it for themselves!”

Low now aims to get her squash career back on track. What does she want to achieve before she eventually retires?

“World No. 1 and World Champion,” she says. “That is my goal. I also want to be the first player who has done it while being based here in Penang. No one believed I could make the top 10 if I stayed and trained here, but I did break into the top 5. My end goal now is 1.”

Chan Lu Yi: World No. 1

Chan Lu Yi.

At 19, Chan Lu Yi isn’t just an expert wushu exponent – she’s the reigning world champion.

Chan began practising wushu at the tender age of seven, thanks to the recommendation of her father’s friend. “It was interesting and fun, so I participated,” she recalls. “It helps me stay healthy and relaxed.” She later joined the Penang state squad at age 12, and has since taken part in multiple competitions, including the Malaysia Wushu Championship, before graduating to the national squad at age 16.

“After I entered the state squad and participated in a lot of competitions, I thought, maybe I can do well in this,” she says. She soon moved to Bukit Jalil, like many other young and promising Malaysian athletes, where she balances her wushu training with her studies – she is currently studying Foundation in Science at the International Medical University.

Specialising in the taijiquan category, Chan bagged a gold medal at the 2014 Sukma Games in Perlis. Then in the following year, she went to Jakarta for the 13th Wushu World Championship, and returned home a world taijiquan champion. Next in her sights: this year’s Sukma games, where she modestly sets expectations. “I don’t expect much. I just hope I can perform well and with no mistakes.”

As Chan attests, it’s not easy balancing her training with her studies. She trains from Monday to Saturday, taking part in intense skills training sessions as well as gym sessions, where she participates in strength and weight training sessions. “I have to manage my time well,” she says. “In our sport, we must have discipline. It’s a tradition.”

But there’s only so much she can balance. Someday, she will have to choose between her beloved sport and her education. Chan has ambitions of becoming a doctor (“I feel happy when helping people in pain.”), and the lack of endorsements for even a world wushu champion means that something’s got to give, eventually. There’s no wushu category in the Olympics, after all, and the limited number of competitions a year means there are fewer financial incentives compared to other sports like badminton. Chan predicts she’ll continue to stay in the sport until her degree inevitably begins. Then retirement.

But that’s not happening just yet. “Maybe I will postpone my degree. My parents are okay with it, but ‘don’t stop too long ah!’” she adds with a laugh.

Nur Naseha Rusli: Sight on the Target

Nur Naseha Rusli.

Nur Naseha Rusli has been an active archer since she was just 13 years old. Picking up her first bow upon entering secondary school, she has since never looked back, taking part in numerous archery competitions in the country and overseas over the last six years – and she has the medals to show for it.

But her first taste of international competition came in 2011 when she took part in the Asian Archery Youth Championships in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and won the gold in a team event. In 2012 she joined a programme organised by the National Sports Council, with an eye on the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, which led to her moving from Penang to Bukit Jalil when she was 15. In 2013 Nur took part in the World Archery Youth Championships in Wuxi, China. On the first day of the contest, she placed 54th over 120th, and eventually missed out on qualifying for the individual round for the Olympics.

The following year, Nur joined the National Sports Council’s Pelapis Kebangsaan programme and trained under former national archer Wan Khalmizam for the upcoming Sukma competition in Perlis. 2014 was an especially tricky year for Nur – a time when she had to figure out how to balance her archery training with her SPM examinations.

Then the 2014 Sukma Games arrived, and Nur shone. First, the bronze medal for the 60m event, then a silver for the 50m event the following day. And finally she won the gold for the 30m event. It was a much needed high note before she took a break from the world of archery to fully focus on the SPM. She then started anew in 2015. The year began slowly for her. She won just one medal in the first competition of the year. But later, at the UPM Open Archery Championship, Nur bagged four medals, including two golds.

Having taken part in both local and international competitions, what’s the biggest difference Nur can see? “For sure the competition is harder when it comes to the latter,” she said. “If you want to beat them you need to have a very strong mentality and skill. They’ve been to more international games so they are more experienced.”

Now 19 years old, Nur is trying to balance her archery training with her STPM examinations, but her eye is set on this year’s Sukma Games. “I want to defend my gold in the 30m. Two years ago I won a silver in the Olympic round; this year I am targeting gold.”

Nur credits her mother, a travel agent in Penang, as a source of strength and motivation. “My mum is a single mum and I’m an only child. She really supports me every time there’s a competition, and she would give me advice and pray for me. It’s been six years since I joined the National Sports Council, and I can only go back to her maybe once or twice a year.”

 

Before she eventually retires, Nur wants a shot at the Olympics, but knows she still has some way to go, describing her current performance as “not elite”. “I’m 19 now, I’m not sure I can compete with elite teams (yet).” But “retirement” is still far off in her mind, and even if she leaves the National Sports Council programme to concentrate on her degree, she knows universities like UPM have their own archery programmes. She’d never be far away from a bow and arrow.

And any advice she might have for young girls who’d want to follow in her footsteps? “Firstly, your mentality has to be strong; some competitors will try to (psyche) you, so you really need to have a strong mentality. The most important thing is to believe in yourself, and you can do it.”

Calvin Boon: Going the Distance

Calvin Boon.

Calvin Boon insists that he’s not particularly talented. “I don’t have the strength for throwing sports or the speed for sprinting, and I definitely don’t have the flexibility of a jumper. I know I don’t have a lot of talent.”

What he does have, he’ll tell you, is a strong work ethic and determination. “So the only thing I can go for are the long distance events, which involve stamina and hard work. If you work hard, you can be successful at it. We cannot compete with sprinters, but we work hard.”

That work ethic is what led him to win a gold medal for Penang at Sukma 2014 in the 10,000m category, and he’s poised to defend his win in this year’s games in Sarawak.

Boon first got into track and field when he was about 13, and eventually found himself being coached by PLBS Peyadesa, a former runner who represented Malaysia at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He grew to enjoy the competition after a series of successes at Penang Schools Sports Council competitions, and in 2010 won the steeplechase event at MSSM.

His first Sukma was in 2010 in Pahang, which exposed him to a different kind of competition from what he was used to at school games. “The maturity is different,” he says. “Sukma is no joke; you’ve got to train for it.” It was a turning point for Boon, and while he came away empty-handed, he renewed his focus on the next Sukma Games. Then at Sukma 2014 in Perlis, he took home the gold. He’s now focused on training for this year’s Sukma.

part in track meets overseas, thanks to the generous support of his sponsors (he has sponsorship deals with Oat King and Garmin, on top of the RM500 a month he would receive for two years after his gold win at Sukma), as well as the Penang Forward Sports Club. He most recently took part at the Singapore Athletics Track and Field Series 2, where he won the gold in the 10,000m event, then came in third in the 5,000m run.

 

The ultimate dream for Boon would be to take part in the Olympics, but before that he wants a shot at the SEA Games, which will be held in KL next year. But this is easier said than done: organisers have provisionally dropped eight track and field events from the 2017 games, including the 10,000m, the decathlon and triathlon, sparking an uproar. “It’s a shame,” Boon says. “It makes no sense. It’s quite disappointing.”

In the meantime, there are other races to take part in, and with them, mounting pressure. Boon knows that he is considered a “prospect” for the upcoming Sukma Games – he is expected to win the gold once more. “The pressure is there, and we must live up to the hype. But that’s what makes Lee Chong Wei and Nicol great. They handle a lot of pressure every day.” And for his part, Boon is embracing the expectations.

 

For a recap, read editor Ooi Kee Beng's story on Nicol, published in our February 2010 issue, at www.penangmonthly.com/ meeting-a-legend-that-grows-and-grows.

 

1 www.espnfc.com/blog/football-asia/153/ post/2798320/sarawak-striker-makeche-helpedby- squash-legend-nicol-david
2 www.thesundaily.my/news/1375543
3 www.theantdaily.com/Main/Nicol-David-s- Olympic-dream-for-squash-dashed-again
4 www.thesportreview.com/tsr/2013/02/nicol-davidroger- federer-squash-2020-bid/



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