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Malaysia’s badminton hero Dato’ Lee Chong Wei speaks about what it takes to make a world champion.
Seeing Dato’ Lee Chong Wei play is a revelation. Going through nearly a dozen T-shirt changes and umpteenth bottles of water, he plays like he’s fighting for his life in a major tournament, even though it’s just routine practice with two of his teammates. That’s right, he trains by pitting himself against two players – the only person in the Bukit Kiara Stadium doing this.
That steely focus gives some insight into the mental strength that goes into the career of one of badminton history's longest-lasting stars: Lee, who joined the national squad at 17 when he was spotted by Misbun Sidek, has been competing for 17 years.
It’s hard to imagine that barely two years ago, Lee nearly threw in the towel.
Then world number one, Lee tested positive for an anti-inflammatory drug at the 2014 world championships. Facing a two-year ban, his future looked bleak.
"Nobody knows the pain I went through during that period,” he shares. “I didn’t leave my house for weeks because every time I went out, people would ask me the same questions, over and over again.”
“Honestly, at that point I contemplated letting go.”
But his fans knew better. Most importantly, his biggest fan – his wife, former badminton star Wong Mew Choo – believed Lee still had a lot of play in him. Visibly moved by her loyalty, his voice dips low when he shares, “She told me, you’ve already worked so hard for the last two years, and there’s just one more to go for the Rio Olympics. If you give up, people will say it’s your fault. This case is not your fault, so why do you want to give up?”
Badminton authorities eventually accepted his explanation that he took the drug inadvertently amid stem-cell treatment for a thigh injury. The episode side-lined him for eight months, however, and when he was reinstated in May 2015, he had slid down the world rankings to 186.
The toughest part of his journey was just beginning.
“When you enter the court, you’d think, wow, I was once world number one and now I am in the qualifying round. It was very difficult to psych myself up, but with my family’s encouragement and coach’s support, I told myself I’ll fight on.”
His uphill climb was certainly not made any easier by the intense media scrutiny. “Everywhere I went, I was asked, ‘Do you think you can be number one again? Can you get back to normal?’”
In his trademark candour, he says, “I told them, I cannot promise I can come back as normal. I believed that if I do come back, I will come back stronger. But I may also be totally lost and never come back at all. These were two very real possibilities.”
Mental strength was crucial and Lee dug deep, training with intensity and focusing on winning every match. As the strategy was to collect points, he competed in tournaments he’d never competed in. "You have no choice, because you are ranked so low that you can't get into the major draws. Every match counted. All the while, I just concentrated on winning match by match. I never thought about winning a medal or regaining world number one.”
Ten months later, he stunned the world by reclaiming the top spot. His return to form saw him winning titles at the US Open and Canada Open, the French Open, his maiden China Open and the Hong Kong Open.
In August 2016, 17 years after joining the national squad at 17, he became Malaysia’s most successful Olympian by winning his third silver in the Olympics (for the record, Rio was his 4th Olympic participation – his first was in 2004, where he competed as a 22-year-old).
One can only imagine the mental strength it demands to climb 185 rankings from 186 to number one. "To give you an idea, people ask me, do I hear the crowds in the background when I play? I hear people chanting my name, but other than that, I tune out because I have to focus on my match. So many things are happening on the court. Each player you face has a different style and different set of tactics, so you can't afford to lose [concentration] even for a split second. That split second that you’re distracted gives your opponent a chance to react and could spell victory or defeat.”
Discipline makes the difference between a champion and an ordinary player, especially at the world competitive level. “How do you prepare mentally when 30 million Malaysians are putting their hopes on you to win the gold? That one month in Rio passed like six months to me. Everyday I told my coach, how nice if I can complete all the qualifying rounds in one day! On the other hand, I know that this kind of pressure builds character and the strength you need to be a world champion.”
“After 17 years full of ups and downs, I can say that the greatest lesson is to think positive. To be a champion, have no regrets; remember that life goes on and focus on moving forward, always.”
Lee looks forward to share his experiences and lessons with aspiring badminton players, and is open to whatever role or opportunity that comes his way in future. “I am not afraid of the word retire,” he says with a chuckle. “Sportsmen’s lives have a lifespan – that is a fact – but it doesn’t mean we cannot continue to contribute. I’m glad that I’ve managed to achieve all my dreams, and I look forward to performing my national service."
With little left to prove, Lee is taking it one championship at a time. “I will look at my fitness and health. But if you ask me until when I will continue, I cannot answer you. Right now I am targeting the 2017 world championship. If after the competition I am still fit, I will continue to compete. I will play until my body tells me to stop."
Spoken like a true, gritty champion.
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