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We Are The Champions
After their triumphant performance at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, we check in with Malaysia’s Paralympic medallists and their head coach.
If only one story could lift the spirits of our nation, this would be it. While Malaysians were still reeling from the missed opportunities of winning the country’s first Olympic gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games last August, a small group of young athletes brought everybody to their feet again.
We’re talking about our national Paralympics contingent, who not only took home three gold medals and a bronze in September’s Rio 2016 Paralympic Games – they also set a handful of world and Asian records. To refresh your memory, Mohamad Ridzuan Mohamad Puzi, Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli and Abdul Latif Romly each won gold in their respective categories: men’s 100m sprint (T36), men’s shot put (F20) and men’s long jump (T20), with Muhammad Ziyad and Abdul Latif setting world records with their performance. Meanwhile, Siti Noor Radiah Ismail’s third-place win in the women’s long jump (T20) saw the athlete simultaneously break her Asia Para Games 2014 record.
“When we first landed in Rio de Janeiro, no one gave us a second glance. But once we started winning and breaking world records, that’s when people started respecting us,” notes National Paralympics head coach for athletics, Jeganathan Ramasamy, or better known as Coach Jega.
Back home, Malaysians were suddenly paying attention to our national Paralympians who became household names overnight. However, the effort and preparations made to get to this stage took a whole lot longer – 15 years to be exact.
“It’s literally taken us 15 years to get to this point. I could not have done this without the excellent work put in by my coaches,” says Coach Jega, who’s headed the Paralympics coaching team since 2001.
The research put in by the coaching team has been immense. They made the athletes participate in as many international tournaments and meets as they could, and studied each athlete’s performance. This way, they could identify the individual strengths to focus on.
The coaching team’s efforts have certainly paid off. Among other things, Mohamad Ridzuan, the first Malaysian Paralympian to win a gold medal, even has fans stopping him in public to take photos.
“I left the national squad once a few years ago. But they persuaded me to come back. I agreed and started to see my performance improving. It was a big motivational factor and that kept me hungry to keep on doing better,” says the 29-year-old from Padang Besar, Perlis. “I’m so proud and happy to be able to contribute to the country.”
Meanwhile, long jumper Abdul Latif, who broke his own world record not once but twice, never expected to do so well at the Paralympics. In fact, the 19-year-old still finds his achievement hard to believe. He laughs when he remembers how nervous he was to start the competition in Rio de Janeiro.
“It was my first time participating in the Paralympics. I was so nervous. But when I heard the chants and support from the Malaysian fans who were there, I lost the nervousness,” says Latiff.
The Perlis native from Bukit Keteri wishes that he could see his family back home more, but he understands that it’s a sacrifice he has to make to become the best in the world. Even so, he tries to go back as often as he can.
Homesickness also afflicts 23-year-old female long jumper Siti Noor Radiah, whose family resides in Segamat, Johor. Radiah recalls how she couldn’t go back to Segamat right after returning from Rio because so many people wanted to meet her and her fellow medallists. She only managed to go back after a few weeks.
“I went home and my parents were so happy. We did a majlis kesyukuran in the village and I had to go back to Kuala Lumpur the very next day,” she says.
But it is all worth it for Radiah. She went to Rio with the objective of beating her personal best and maybe winning a medal – and that’s exactly what she did.
Muhammad Ziyad, world record holder for the men’s shot put, however has more than athletics on his mind currently. The 26-year-old is busy planning and preparing for his upcoming wedding. Even his coaches gave him some time off so he can organise his big day.
“These extraordinary athletes have overcome so much to be doing what they’re doing now. And I am happy to see that they’re now being recognised by the government as equal to the nation’s able-bodied athletes. A lot of it has to do with the current Sports Minister, YB Khairy Jamaluddin,” says Coach Jega, referring to how para-athletes are now receiving allowances, rewards and incentives that are equal to their able-bodied colleagues. While this should have been done from the start, it’s still a move that’s better late than never.
Even though the Rio 2016 Paralympics wrapped up in September, these athletes will forever go down in Malaysian history as the dream team that rose to the occasion and made our country proud. This is what it means to be standing in the eyes of the world. Congratulations, Team Malaysia!
By Zan Azlee
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