Except for a few bright spots over the years, Malaysia has always had to look hard for sports talents. But these days, young talent is lining up and knocking on the door of stardom in an unending stream.
The rise of a young brigade of talents was evident at the 2017 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games.
There were 261 athletes who were under 21 at the KL Games, while 445 actually made their SEA Games debuts then, which indicates that Malaysia has a depth of talent that augurs well for the future.
With the right guidance, focus, empowerment and support, these athletes are expected to stamp their marks at the Commonwealth Games in Australia’s Gold Coast next April.
They are also being groomed to raise the bar higher at the Asian Games in Jakarta in August, 2018.
And they may even defy the odds to keep Malaysia’s flag flying high at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
Former track and field queen Datuk Zaiton Othman said there are many young talents who are raw diamonds waiting to be fully polished.
Zaiton, for one, is blown away by the exploits of sprinter Khairul Hafiz Jantan, heptathlete Nurliyana Kamaruddin, and diver Nur Dhabitah Sabri.
The 19-year-old Khairul bagged the men’s 100m gold medal at the KL Games.
“The Speedy Jantan”, as he has been dubbed, also shattered the oldest record in Malaysian athletics – held by Tan Sri Dr M. Jegathesan in the 200m at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.
Nurliyana, 26, eclipsed Zaiton’s 36-year-old heptathlon mark at the KL Games while 18-year-old Dhabitah has shown marked improvement since making her debut at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
“It’s phenomenal for Khairul to break Dr Jega’s record. There’s so much potential in him – he is indeed an unpolished gem,” said Zaiton, currently the country’s Sports Commissioner.
“Dhabitah has the potential to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics. She is a world-class diver and will excel if given the right coaching and exposure.
“Nurliyana broke my heptathlon record. She’ll break it again because she has so much room for improvement.”
Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM)’s long-serving official Datuk Sieh Kok Chi said that the transition of a talent into a world-beater is crucial.
“I agree that Khairul has great potential. But he is still far behind in terms of performance against Asian-level runners. With hard work and proper training, he has the potential to be an Asian champion,” said Sieh
He said parental support is important too, especially for younger athletes.
“Young female golfer Winnie Ng (16 years old) has shown the potential to be successful. Behind her growth as an athlete, I see strong support from her parents,” said Sieh.
Former badminton great Rashid Sidek said it is important for young athletes to stay injury-free.
“Many a time we hear of young athletes’ careers ending prematurely because of injuries. It’s important for an athlete to be physically strong but coaches must know the limit. Pushing them too much has its dangers,” said Rashid.
“One must strike a balance, but it is also the responsibility of the athletes to know what they can do, should do, and what they shouldn’t.
“I’m happy to see the rise of few young shuttlers, especially Lee Zii Jia (19 years old) and Leong Jun Hao (18 years old).
“They’ve got potential but they must continue to work hard. Many badminton nations like Japan, India and Indonesia, have improved, and our juniors must step up to narrow the gap.”
There have been new faces in other sports too.
Cycling, for instance, has named four riders – Muhd Fadhil Mohd Zonis, Muhd Khairil Nizam Rasol, Mohd Shariz Efendi Mohd Shahrin, and Farina Shawati Mohd Adnan, all between the ages of 19 and 21 – to the Podium Programme, thanks to the youngsters’ gold-medal efforts at the KL Games. (The Podium Programme is an elite athlete preparation programme launched in 2016.)
In sports like karate, squash, rhythmic gymnastics, synchronised swimming, bowling, wushu and water-skiing, some of the young talents were a cut above the competition.
It takes a lot of sweat and toil to reach the top and it looks like Malaysia’s young talents are there for the long run.
Young Stars To Watch Out For In 2018
Who can forget Khairul Hafiz Jantan’s superb dash in the men’s 100m to become the youngest Malaysian to win the sprint gold at the KL SEA Games? Malaysia can bank on the 19-year-old from Tunku Mahkota Ismail Sports School to step on the gas for more honours in 2018.
Keep an eye on promising men singles shuttlers 19-year-old Lee Zii Jia and 18-year-old Leong Jun Hao. With the right guidance and exposure, they should be able to upset big names in the world of badminton. And don’t forget 17-year-old women singles shuttler Goh Jin Wei.
Rafiq Ismail is only 20 years old but he has had some stunning achievements. Expect the Asian Championships Masters champion and World Singles Championships runner-up to bask in more well-deserved honours.
Muhd Fadhil Mohd Zonis has staked a strong claim as a future star by winning the men’s 1km time trial at the SEA Games. The 19-year-old has been selected to participate in the Podium Programme, which grooms elite athletes, and is the right fit to replace senior Azizulhasni Awang one day.
Youngsters Gabriel Gilbert Daim, Hanis Nazirul Jayasurya, Jellson Jabillin and Kimberly Bong were given early exposure at the KL SEA Games, and they proved themselves. They were part of the team that made a clean sweep of 13 gold medals at the games. And they’re set to be world-beaters.
Izzah Amzan dazzled at the SEA Games by winning gold medals, and the 17-year-old deservedly got a spot in the Podium Programme.
The 2016 world junior champion Ng Eain Yow did well to win two gold medals at the SEA Games. With his strong determination and dedication, the 19-year-old has the potential to be a world-beater too.
Welson Sim, 20, underlined his status as a star in the making when he bagged the men’s Olympian of the Year award for his two-gold show at the SEA Games in August. Not only did he win the 200m and 400m freestyle races, he also broke the meet records.
One should not rule out 15-year-old Abraham Eng. He won a silver medal in the double trap at the SEA Games and should hit the mark again if given a chance to compete at the Commonwealth Games next April.