For the Yoongs, water-skiing is a three-generational affair. Their sturdy patriarch, Hanifah, relates how the sport has kept the family together.
I HAD stepped into the water-ski area of the Putrajaya Maritime Centre with the cool breeze in my hair. The water lapping against the white stone quay was quite a sight for this city girl whose life revolves around the bustling Kuala Lumpur traffic.
Seated by the lake in various states of relaxation was the headline-making Yoong family. Their patriarch, Hanifah, was a merry presence amid the rambunctious brood. He is 63 but looks at least a decade younger. His handshake is firm and steady, and his tanned skin and sun-beaten complexion suggests he is no stranger to the outdoors.
He appeared stern at first glance and had even seemed a little reproachful when this interview was being arranged. But a deeper look at the gentleman reveals a staunch spirit and an unwavering zen-like quality. Two rows of straight white teeth form a welcome smile.
“I just recovered from demam (fever),” he says. A Muslim convert, he speaks with little restraint in Malay-tinged English.
His simple facade and placid demeanour belies his illustrious careers in engineering and motor sports. Yoong was the event director of the FIM (Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme or International Motorcycling Federation) World Motorcycle Grand Prix Malaysia from 1991 to 1995.
He is currently the event director of the International Waterski and Wakeboard Federation (IWWF) World Cup and advisor to the Malaysian Waterski and Wakeboard Federation (MWWF), as well as the events and operations director of the Waterski and Wakeboard World Cup Sdn Bhd.
Also a sports psychologist, Hanifah is clearly a well-loved figure among his children: former Formula One race car driver Alex, 35, and Philippa, 33 – both from his first marriage to an Englishwoman – as well as Aaliyah, eight, Aidan, six, and Adam, four.
For the father of five, his love for his family and ardour for adventure come together in water-skiing. It’s proven to be a potent combination that saw his three elder children making a big splash at last month’s SEA Games in Indonesia by contributing eight medals (four gold, three silver and one bronze) from water-skiing in the overall, slalom, tricks and jump categories to Malaysia’s medal haul of 190.
Most outstandingly was little Aaliyah’s ride into the records of the biennial Games, in its 26th edition, as the youngest gold medal winner. She became the best in the South-East Asian region in the tricks event held in Palembang. What made her feat even more remarkable was that her nearest rival, Sareeya Promsuntisit of Thailand, who won silver, is 35 years old.
Her half-sister Philippa won two golds in the women’s slalom and overall disciplines, in addition to a silver in jump and a bronze in tricks. The eldest sibling, Alex, who is currently the head of driver development with Team Lotus and also a commentator for ESPN Star Sports, made a successful return to the water-skiing scene – 14 years after his last competition – by winning the men’s overall title (he also clinched silver medals in jump and slalom).
Yes, the Yoongs are the country’s “first family” of water-skiing, if ever there was one. “Everyone in our family skis. The father, the mother, the grandchildren....” Hanifah, also a grandfather of three, tells us excitedly.
The sport plays a big role in family bonding. “One of the biggest characteristics of water-skiing is that it’s a three-generational game. I think families who water-ski don’t ‘lose’ their children even after they leave home. There is so much to discuss.
“I’m sure Aaliyah will still be around with us even after she’s married as there’ll be so many common topics we can talk about. Not to forget that we can all still water-ski together.
“Besides swimming, it’s another sport that an entire family can do together. Can you go boxing together? Can you play golf together?” he quizzes.
Water-skiing, a thrilling sport that tests the participant’s balance, agility and co-ordination skills, also makes for good character building. “It’s good for the body, it gives you better balance and it teaches you how to handle speed.”
But at the core, he adds, it is a “mental game” that requires a high level of focus. “Any sport is good for children but water-skiing is particularly good, simply because it’s an all-encompassing type of character-building sport.”
If there’s anyone who can speak for the sport, Hanifah, having been at it for 40 years, would be it. It all started while he was on one of his regular trips to Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan.
“I’m a KL boy but I went down to PD quite often to sail and to swim. While I was there, I would always see these Mat Sallehs (Caucasians) skiing and I decided I wanted to learn the sport too.”
Hanifah says he taught himself how to ski. “Those days, nobody else skied, only the British planters. I just tried to follow what the Mat Sallehs did. Nobody coached me and it was so difficult to learn without any coaching.”
He introduced the sport to Alex and Philippa in Balakong, Selangor, in 1988. The high cost of the sport (they were spending up to RM4,000 a month) prompted him to start his own water-skiing operation in Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur, to help the siblings advance.
In between, he also helped manage Alex’s motor racing career in Europe. “Then he got into Formula One in 2002 and that’s when I thought, “He’s already an adult,” so I stopped managing him,” the man recalls.
Hanifah remarried in 2002 and started a new family with Negri Sembilan-born Norzeela Sulaiman, 36. “When our kids were growing up, I started a new operation here in 2008,” he says. He currently operates the water-ski centre in Precinct 6, Putrajaya.
“Most people have the perception that water-skiing is a very difficult and expensive sport. But I do not think so. It is relatively easy to learn and it falls under the same price range as golf, snow-skiing and equestrian sports. It is definitely far cheaper than motor sports!”
It costs about RM120 per session of two sets, each lasting some 15 minutes. His customers comprise mainly tourists, expatriates and airline crews.
“The money we made from tourists is used to fund the training of young athletes for the sake of the sport,” says Hanifah. “We subsidise half of the training fees (which usually amount to RM1,200 per month on average for a committed trainee).”
For now, the MWWF is focusing on a 10-year development programme that Hanifah initiated in 2009; it is open to children as young as five. The programme is aimed at creating Malaysia’s first world water-skiing champion by 2020.
But the quest needs financial support. “Hopefully, our SEA Games achievements will help promote our cause. We currently have about 20 athletes under the programme. We are hoping to groom them for the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore and also the 2017 Games.”
The cool “X-factor” is what attracts children to participate in sports, he says. “But even getting kids to play games like basketball or ping pong seems like an uphill challenge these days.”
Prodigy and tsunami survivor
It came as a surprise to Hanifah when Aaliyah showed potential for the sport when she first slipped into a pair of double skis at just five.
“We had just begun the water-skiing operations and every day when she was not in kindergarten she would want to be at the ski site. She’d watch us coach other kids (mostly from ages seven to 15) and ask to join. But we felt then she was still too small and it was too early for her.”
But the girl would not give up. “After months of cajoling and pestering us, we finally let her have a go at it. The double skis were too big for her and her feet were far too tiny for the bindings. But to our surprise, she handled the skis like a dream!”
Aaliyah’s life in the water began even earlier. “She learned how to swim when she was only six months old.”
Aaliyah is fearless, says the proud dad. “She dived into the open sea without a life jacket when she was training in Beijing two years ago. She just loves the water and the challenges of water-skiing.”
Perhaps the fact that she survived the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Phuket, Thailand, is a prelude to a high-octane career in water. For more than 22 hours, Hanifah battled the fear that he might have lost Norzeela (or Nozie) and his daughter, then 17 months old, to the deadly waves that had swept the beachfront hotel at Kamala Beach where the trio was vacationing on that fateful Dec 26.
Injured and bleeding, Hanifah searched frantically among the dead for his wife and daughter. It was only after he managed to contact Alex in Kuala Lumpur that he learned that both Nozie and Aaliyah were safe.
An estimated 8,000, including 2,000 tourists, perished in Thailand that day. “It was a harrowing and traumatic experience,” Hanifah shares. “But it wasn’t until we were reunited that we felt truly ‘alive’ for the first time.”
Hanifah incorporates his unyielding zest for life in raising his children. “Aaliyah has huge potential to do well in the world of water-skiing but she’s still too young. You can’t push kids at that age. We must create an environment that makes them want to do it and if they really want it, they will naturally progress. Children are like that. The moment a parent forces a child to do something they don’t like, it is almost guaranteed that they’ll give up.”
There’s absolutely no pressure on Aaliyah, he reiterates. “Aaliyah doesn’t ski for me, her mother or for her friends. She skis for herself and when she does well, she’s happy.”
But he is wary that the attention from her recent success may be too much, too soon for the little girl. “Already, she is getting a lot of attention from the media, and special privileges from school (they give her time-off for training as well as reorganise her exam schedule when it clashes with her competitions).
“Too much of that can spoil kids and they might not even realise it themselves. Kids must learn humility and not always look for puji (compliments).
“You don’t want them to think too highly of themselves and think they are a world champion before they ever become one. Yes, Aaliyah won at the SEA Games. She’s news for now, but when she fails, it is also news. There will be a time when she’ll start losing,” a cautious Hanafiah says of his daughter that’s already being touted by people as a potential world champion.
His concern was shared by Alex, who in Palembang had expressed the family’s wish to give the highly promising young talent space to grow without much pressure.
When she isn’t splashing away in the water, Aaliyah enjoys learning English and mathematics. She also likes watching television and cartoons on YouTube. “I think my kids spend too much time watching TV. That’s why they’re all wearing glasses!” says Hanifah.
His youngest son, Adam, has also demonstrated potential of a good athlete. Aidan, on the other hand, is more musically inclined and geared towards the arts.
In person, Aaliyah proves to be a lively bag of sunshine.
Do you like water-skiing much? “Yup!” the regional champ replies, wide-eyed, slightly jittery but adds that it makes her happy and excited.
She says her friends in school have been supportive. “They’ve been saying congratulations and do your best.”
The SK Bandar Seri Putra (Kajang, Selangor) student also tells us she loves Barbie cartoons and has a sizeable doll collection at home.
“I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up,” she beams. “I like animals.”
Like Aaliyah, Philippa (or Pippa, as her dad calls her) is a burst of girlish effervescence during this interview (Alex could not make it as he was abroad). The 2011 SEA Games double gold medallist, who inherited her exotic good looks from her mother, competed actively in water-skiing from 1990 to 1995.
“Dad either took us to competitions abroad or he brought competitions to Malaysia,” she says. Her last competition was in the 1997 SEA Games, also in Indonesia. Philippa was only 18 when she took home the gold medal for the women’s jump category in Jakarta.
“The scene got quiet again after that.” She went on to obtain a degree in advertising and work in events and television before getting married. She is currently the vice-president and national coach for MWWF, but is mainly a stay-at-home mum to Tara Joy, five, and Chloe Summer, two.
“I’ve been absent from the water-skiing scene for almost 10 years. I could really feel the difference when I got back, especially after having two kids. My body feels looser now and my joints are definitely weaker....” reveals the sportswoman whose New Zealander businessman husband, currently based in Malaysia, is supportive of her endeavours in water-skiing.
She says hitting the gym three times a week has helped her regain some of her former strength and vigour.
Philippa warns that the sport isn’t exactly as rewarding in monetary terms as people might think. “Few athletes in Malaysia get paid to compete. But I suppose the payoff lies in being able to spread the sport. It’s really fun to see people experience water-skiing for the first time. And I guess like any sport, there’s satisfaction in achieving something.”
Above all, she says the thrill lies in the sport itself. “The best part is being in the water. It’s really exhilarating when you’re going fast ... like flying on water.”