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Published: Tuesday February 18, 2014 MYT 7:30:00 AM
Updated: Monday February 17, 2014 MYT 9:45:43 PM

Sabah, Sarawak the new hotbed of talents

FACTS and figures are fascinating on their own. But when you add sports to that equation – it’s a whole new level of excitement.

Did you know that most NBA (National Basketball Association) players come from California, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago? Think NBA Finals MVP’s Paul Pierce (2005), Michael Jordan (1991-1993, 1995-1998), Kobe Bryant (2008-2010) and Dwayne Wade (2005).

It’s the same for the NFL – with the lion’s share of the US National Football League coming from California (Troy Aikman, Dan Fouts) and Southern states like Texas (cornerback Jimmy Johnson) and Florida (Warren Sapp, Emmitt Smith).

What about Malaysia? Would certain states be more susceptible to churning out high-quality athletes?

At the 2012 London Olympics, Malaysia sent 30 athletes. Perak and Terengganu had the highest representation with five athletes each.

The trio from Sarawak were all divers – Bryan Nickson Lomas, Pandelela Rinong and Traisy Vivien Tukiet.

Multiple SEA Games medallist Diana Bong going through her moves during the wushu competition at last year's SEA Games in Myanmar.
Multiple SEA Games medallist Diana Bong going through her moves during the wushu competition at last year's SEA Games in Myanmar.

Today, Sabah and Sarawak boast some of our top sportsmen and women, including Pandelela, swimmer Daniel Bego, wushu exponent Diana Bong and karate exponent Leong Tze Wai.

In fact, quite a number of our swimmers and divers come from the east Malaysian states.

Where the money is

Anyone might think the big cities with higher population density (Federal Territory and Selangor) would have an advantage over states like Sabah and Sarawak, who don’t necessarily have the same ease of access to amenities or long-reaching funding arm as their counterparts.

However, this is not the case. The east Malaysian states look set to be the hotbed for supplying Malaysia with a slew of sporting icons in the coming years.

Some of their hottest exports have included the likes of Sabah-born Olympian swimmers Alex Lim Keng Liat and Elvin Chia, and Dayak sprinter Watson Nyambek, who still holds the men’s 100m national record.

For Sarawak, the torch has been passed on to the likes of Kuching-born Olympian Daniel who won a record five gold medals at the 2009 SEA Games, multiple SEA Games medallist Diana, World Champion bowler Jacqueline Jenelee Sijore and of course, 2012 Olympics and 2013 FINA World Championship bronze medallist Pandelela.

There’s also a host of upcoming stars in the mould of 2013 SEA Games silver medallists Casier Renee Kelley (hammer throw), Erika Kong, Vernon Lee, Welson Sim (swimmers), Esmelda Arecia Menti Alfred Geling (artistic gymnastics).

The competition is on

Selangor State Sports Council's deputy director of development Mohamed Nizam Marjugi calls Sabah and Sarawak the darkhorses of Malaysian sports. The other states don't always know what to expect from them, and as such they should never be discounted as worthy opponents.

“It's hard to predict. We don't get to compete with them year-round so there's always a little question mark when we have to go up against them. But that said, it is undeniable that they are producing top talents. Our most successful swimmers and divers come from Sarawak. All the states work hard. You can't deny the good work they are doing out there,” he says.

Sarawak’s State Sports Council acting director Lucas Kallang Laeng says there is no race to be the top producer of athletes. He insists it is a service to the country.

“We’re not trying to compete with Peninsular,” emphasises Lucas.

“Our mission is to keep producing sporting talents and that’s what we’re concentrating on and what all the states are doing,” he adds.

Grassroots development

Lucas informs that Sarawak’s success comes off the back of the state tapping into the ready-made talent pool that is available in schools.

One of the key ingredients to Sarawak’s success is their emphasis on nurturing young talents via a calculated grassroots programme that encompasses development and excellence.

“It’s a systematic approach, and we also have additional support from various academies, and sports clubs that actively keep their sports programme going. So, all the stakeholders are doing a very good job at sustaining the development.

“But it’s no easy feat, it’s not like in Semenanjung where you can just cycle or take a bus ride to your training centre. Sarawak is a big state and to develop one sport itself takes a lot of planing and funding and we work on a very tight budget. But we are used to it,” explains Lucas.

One such product of their grassroots development is Pandelela, the petite braveheart from Kampung Jugan in Bau who has gone on to become Malaysia’s poster child for sports.

“Diving was unheard of back then. Swimming, wushu and badminton were quite popular in my school ... actually almost everyone swims in Sarawak. Even I tried those sports before I took up diving!” quips Pandelela.

“What made the difference with me was that the state diving coach at that time (China’s Wan Jinglan) was very hands-on, very hardworking. She was also the one who discovered Bryan (Nickson Lomas). So, having dedicated individuals on the ground actually spotting and nurturing the talent is equally important,” she adds.

Although Sarawak’s strong suit has always been in aquatics, due to the proactive efforts of the Sarawak Swimming Association, the state is now expanding its interest in sports like artistic gymnastics, football and golf among others.

The hiring of Bulgarian Bogomil Momchilov as the state coach has brought dividends to gymnastics in Sarawak and the result is obvious with Esmelda's burgeoning talent.

The former national coach who took Esmelda under his wing at age eight was able to turn her into a rising star in five years. The 13-year-old shone brightest at last year’s Sukma (Malaysia Games), winning two gold, three silver and one bronze medals, being awarded the Best Sportswoman title in the process. She followed that up by winning the national junior champion title four months later.

Esmelda Arecia Menti Alfred Geling won two gold, three silver and one bronze medals at last year's Sukma, where she was awarded the Best Sportswoman.
Esmelda Arecia Menti Alfred Geling won two gold, three silver and one bronze medals at last year's Sukma, where she was awarded the Best Sportswoman.

Focus on infrastructure

Not to be left behind, Sabah has decided to focus on hockey.

They made their debut at last year’s Malaysian Hockey Confederation Under-21 Hockey Championship, fielding one of the youngest teams in the tournament with an average age of 16.

They finished fourth out of a seven-team Group A. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in the state’s grand scheme of becoming title contenders at Sukma in Perlis from May 24-June 14.

What’s more, Sabah now boasts nine hockey turfs – four of which are situated in the state capital of Kota Kinabalu. In comparison, the reigning U-21 champions Selangor have only two sub-standard pitches to work on.

It’s a clear statement of intent on the part of the state.

“We (Sabah) used to be the punching bag of hockey. Well, not any more. Our development plans go deep and we’ve got players for our U-12, U-14, U-16 and U-21. And hopefully, by 2020, we’ll see many more Sabahans donning the national team jersey,” says Sabah Hockey Association representative Avtar Singh Bal.

They are already starting to make their presence felt in the ongoing MHC Malaysian Junior Hockey League. There are currently seven Sabahans playing in Division One. In Division Two, Olak-PKT drafted four young Sabahans – Aldrian Jalk, Maxhans Christi, Mawardi Hamirin and Zakhri Esar, all aged 18. Mawardi was also Sabah’s top scorer during the U-21 championships, netting four goals.

Olak-PKT team manager Joseph De Silva says the foursome had come highly recommended.

“I was told that there were some good talents in Sabah and I spoke to a few coaches like Dedi Saputra (Abd Rasyid) and also watched them play the U-21 tournament. They’re young and, for their age group, they’re very good. Give the right exposure and in time they’ll be the ones to watch,” says Joseph.

“Sabah is slowly producing better players. They have nine turfs now. So, they’re really starting to get aggressive with (hockey) development there and that’s a good thing,” he adds.

Conclusion

While plans are a great way to start something, implementing them is a whole other aspect.

And though roughly 1,200km away from Peninsular, Sabah and Sarawak have proven that sometimes, what you need is not an over-the top, ambitious, big-cash programme to attain success.

It may be as simple as having the right intentions, the right people and the diligence to dig deep, work hard and see the plan through.

Tags / Keywords: Sabah, Sarawak, diving, swimming, hockey, gymnastics, Pandelela Rinong, Diana Bong, Esmelda Arecia Menti Alfred Geling

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