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Friday September 27, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Friday September 27, 2013 MYT 8:02:18 AM
by tristan toh
Low Wee Wern is taking the pressure of being compared to world No. 1 and fellow Penangite Datuk Nicol David in her stride.
Despite squash’s failure to get into the Olympic Games’ line-up, Malaysian No. 2 Low Wee Wern has high hopes for her sport.
THERE are 16,000km between Buenos Aires and Malaysia, but yet the tremors caused by the 125th International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in the Argentinian capital could be felt back home.
Squash was once more snubbed a spot in the Summer Olympic Games line-up, coming up short in votes to baseball/softball and the eventual winner, wrestling. The decision wasn’t wholly unexpected, but it was still disappointing to the many squash players around the world dreaming of Olympic glory – none more than Malaysian No. 2 Low Wee Wern, 23, one of our country’s brightest hopes in sports.
Squash legend Jansher Khan of Pakistan led the global outcry against the decision, kindling a glimmer of hope when he pleaded the IOC to award the racquet sport wildcard entry. But Low remains doubtful of its chances, saying that the World Squash Federation (WSF) has thrown in the towel.
“We don’t want to be crushed again,” said Low during an interview with BRATs. “We had quite a good bid and were confident of a positive result.
“Even if there is room for a demonstration sport (one played during the Olympics to help promote the sport), it would most likely go to baseball due to its huge following in Japan.”
Low had been an active figure throughout the bid process, giving video interviews and participating in flash mobs.
With age putting 30-year-old world No. 1 Datuk Nicol David out of contention for the 2024 Olympics, her fellow Penangite Low has some pretty big shoes to fill. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, though Low is taking the pressure in her stride.
“Nicol has achieved not just what every squash player dreams of, but what every athlete does. I will try to be the best I can be, and I look forward to being the country’s main flag-bearer.”
It is an honour that will be richly deserved for Low, who won her maiden title at the 2001 Australian Junior Selection Series. In the eight years since, she’s had her name etched on 24 international junior trophies and two national squash tournaments as a professional.
But it was not until 2009 that the precocious teenager decided to turn her passion into a full-time gig. Scholarship offers from the likes of Harvard University and Trinity College seemed poised to pry her stateside.
Before she could put pen to paper, however, Low clinched the British Under-19 Squash Championships.
Driven by the revelation that she could carve a successful career in the sport, Wee Wern issued herself an ultimatum – if she failed to break into the top 50 within a year, she would further her studies abroad.
She succeeded, and then some. Low ended 2010 on a high note, her ascent into the top 20 arriving at an earlier age than when Nicol did in 2003. Her consistent performances have since propelled the rising star to her current world ranking of sixth.
Looking to the future
Low now has her sights set on going even higher, and her upcoming title defence of the China Open (Oct 24 to 27) could be her ticket there.
The two-time defending champion should expect a tough road to the final. The lack of sponsors has reduced the number of tournaments on this year’s Women’s Squash Association (WSA) calendar, forcing players to jostle for any they can get their hands on.
At the China Open, Low faces a tough second round encounter with Egyptian Raneem El Weleily – whom she hasn’t beaten in four meetings. El Weleily is just one of six top 10 players participating in the tournament, including Joelle King, Alison Waters and Nicol.
Low believes she kind of has home advantage on her side being the only ethnic Chinese in the tournament. Even though she doesn’t speak Mandarin, the locals have always reserved the loudest cheers for her.
Winning in Shanghai would salvage a lacklustre 2013 that has seen her slump to a shocking first round exit at the British Open.
“Mentally, it kills you,” she lamented. “I was seeded first at the Asian Individual Squash Championships in Islamabad (earlier this year) and had no top 10 players to contend with. I should have won.”
After that disappointment, a dejected Low took two days off squash to recoup, the break doing wonders as she bounced back to reach the quarterfinals of the Malaysian Open and third place playoff at the World Games.
While China has become her comfort zone, Malaysia will always be home for Low. She recalls fondly the crowds who gathered to watch her games at the Malaysian Open even late at night.
Unlike many elite athletes, Low prefers to keep her training base in Malaysia as well. Bukit Dumbar in Penang is her regular stomping ground, where she spends six days a week working on her fitness and technique.
“I had two stints in Amsterdam, when I was 18 and 19,” she said. “To a lot of people, going overseas is the only way to make it. It took a lot of courage for my coach and I to say no.”
She added: “(Professional coach and former player) Liz Irving is great for making Nicol who she is today, but we did not click due to different playing styles. Aaron Soyza (Low’s current coach) has guided me for the past 12 years, and we’ll have many more years to come.”
Aaron has been replicating his success at the Squash Academy of Penang. Together with assistant coach Khoo Teng Hin and 10 part-time coaches, they have assured Malaysia’s continued success in the sport by churning out such talents such as Celine Yeap and Asian Youth Games champion Vanessa Raj.
If you think these professional squash players are rolling in money, think again. For female players like Low, the pay disparity is another issue.
The World Open, for instance, has a total prize pool of US$325,000 (RM1.05mil) in the men’s competition. The women’s prize pool is almost half of that at US$165,000 (RM533,000).
The Malaysian Open turns the trend on its head, offering the fairer sex US$20,000 (RM65,000) more than their male counterparts.
Regardless, Low believes both male and female winners should receive equal amounts in cash. She pointed out that the US Open was the first tournament to do so, and the WSA too have been working towards levelling the playing field.
Till then, Low makes do with grants from the National Sports Council, which she said barely covers her own travel expenses, preventing her coach from accompanying her to overseas tournaments.
Fortunately, she found a fan in AirAsia group chief executive officer Tan Sri Tony Fernandes. Low’s success around the world – as a home-grown and home-based player – resonated with the company, which agreed to fly her coach to select destinations. Low hopes more organisations will do the same and step up to back the country’s up-and-coming squash stars.
With their help, Low believes that Malaysia can continue to produce more world-beaters, and someday, even an Olympic gold medallist.
> The writer is a member of the BRATs, a young journalist programme – currently in its 20th year – organised by R.AGE. For more stories from our BRATs journalists, go to facebook.com/starbrats.
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Youth, BRATs, R.AGE, Low Wee Wern, squash, Olympics
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