If pressed to name a national sport, Malaysians would say “badminton.” In this sport, Lee Chong Wei sits on the throne. Not only is Wei a three-time Olympic silver medalist, he is also the first badminton player to have kept the #1 world ranking for three years. Undoubtedly the most famous athlete in the country, a movie about his life was recently produced for domestic release. As a young boy, he preferred basketball but was persuaded to try badminton by his mother, who wanted to keep him out of the searing Malaysian heat. In this case, Mother did indeed know best.
Where Lee Chong Wei is king of the badminton court, Nicol David is queen on the squash court. The list of her accomplishments is dizzyingly long. She is an eight-time World Champion, a nine-time Asian Squash Champion, a six-time WISPA Player of the Year, the youngest player to win a World Junior Championship, and the first Asian woman to win the title of World #1. To add to that, she held onto that title for a record-breaking 108 months. While her squash career is not without its dips and troughs, the highs are bright and glittering beyond fathom. When she has time, David loves to doodle, street dance, and visit her hometown in Penang to eat char kuey teow and chili crab.
By day, Pandelela Rinong Pamg is a student of sports science in the University of Malaya. By night, she is the nation’s diving queen. Despite her busy schedule, she carves out eight hours every day to train in her specialty: the 10m platform. Her efforts have paid off in two Olympic medals (one bronze and one silver), four World Championship medals, and one gold medal from the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Diving has been a lifelong dream of hers. She’d been chosen by her swimming coach at age eight because she did not fear heights. And now, many medals later, the diving facility in her hometown has been renamed the Pandelela Rinong Aquatic Centre.
As Malaysia is a tropical country, winter athletes are thin on the ground. But among them, figure-skater Julian Yee stands out with five National Championships and a SEA Games gold medal under his belt. He also holds many “firsts.” He is the first Malaysian to qualify for the World Junior Championships, and the first Malaysian to free skate at the Four Continents Championships. He is also the first Malaysian to qualify for his event in the Winter Olympics and proudly bore the torch for Malaysia in PyeongChang. His story was such an achievement that tech giant Samsung made a short film about it, leading up to the Winter Games. A proud Malaysian, Yee had choreographed his short program at PyeongChang to tell the world why he loves his country. He carried the torch for Malaysia in every sense of the word.
When Terrengganu-born Azizulhasni Awang was a young boy, he did well in his exams and was rewarded with a secondhand bicycle. Neither his parents nor his eight siblings had expected that it would one day lead to a bronze medal at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics, eight gold Asian Championship medals, and five World Championship medals (phew!). The most celebrated track cyclist in Malaysia, Awang made more headlines when he was given the honor of wearing the rainbow jersey, signifying his status as the reigning world champion of cycling. Due to his compact stature, athletes on the circuit dubbed Awang the “Pocket Rocketman.” Awang is now a family man and a proud father of two.
Welson Sim is quite frank about his disadvantages. World-class swimmers are often trained in world-class pools under the tutelage of world-class coaches. Malaysia does not have many world-class pools, and it takes a lot of money to train under world-class coaches. This, however, makes Welson Sim even more determined to make it on his own terms. Sim has won gold in his event three times in the SEA Games, and the silver five times. He has done it all with the training resources available in Malaysia. Never underestimate an athlete who has a point to prove. For Sim, it’s that athletes can compete on the world stage without world-class resources. Competitive swimming has an added bonus of allowing him to travel. He has gone to over 20 countries to compete and intends to travel to even more. Not bad for a guy who started swimming to overcome childhood asthma.
In the early 2000s, professional bowler Shalin Zulkifli was everywhere. She was the #1 bowler in Asia three years in a row and was crowned Malaysian National Champion four times. She broke records by being the first female champion of the World Tenpin Masters in 2001 and was later inducted into the International Bowling Hall of Fame. Considering that bowling is one of the few sports that does not have different competitive categories based on gender, Zulkifli’s accomplishments are all the more impressive. While she still bowls competitively, she divides her time these days between training and running the bowling alley she owns in The Curve shopping mall.
Many great athletes start early. As for Abdul Hadi, she started gymnastics at age three. She has since competed as an artistic gymnast in the SEA Games, bagging four gold medals in the team and floor exercise categories. Her intense training led to a fractured back, and she had to take a year off from competitions to recover. But ever the competitive athlete, she did not let that stop her from training. Of all her performances, she considers her showing at the 2014 Commonwealth Games to be her best. The judges must’ve agreed with her because they gave her the gold.
Abdul Latif Romly has distinguished himself in many ways; for one, he is the only Paralympian on this list. A track and field athlete, competing in the long jump category, Romly wowed the entire world by breaking the world record for the T20 long jump event three times in the same day at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Paralympics. His accomplishments were subsequently acknowledged with a Best Sportsman of the Year award in Malaysia. He is the first para-athlete honored with this award. At the time of writing, Romly holds the world record of 7.60m for the long jump event.
Rounding up this list is the most ambitious and youngest athlete of them all, 15-year-old Aaliyah Yoong Hanifah. While most teenagers her age are worrying about state exams, Hanifah is anxious about becoming the top female water skier in the world. She picked up water skiing at age five and became Asia’s third best skier at age eight. Hanifah is not alone in her skill and ambition. She comes from a family full of water skiers and her four siblings have their own competitive accolades. In this day and age, it’s no longer surprising when teens turn out to be such high achievers. But being Asia’s best female water skier and a SEA Games gold medalist before turning 15 surely distinguishes Hanifah from the rest.