Nurturing young Olympians

From a tender age, students at Bukit Jalil Sports School are groomed to become world-class athletes and the sports trailblazers of tomorrow.

Warming up exercises are essential to avoid injury.

WHAT separates Bukit Jalil Sports School (BJSS) students from their counterparts in other schools is not the lack of academic proficiency but rather, the shift of emphasis.

BJSS students balance rigorous physical training and academia in a tight schedule, in their quest to achieve excellence in the sports arena.

It’s an issue that is given top priority in the national agenda. While older folks may reminisce on the glory days of sports in yesteryears, BJSS students are fired up with only one passion — to leap to fame and glory, much in the footsteps of the Thomas Cup class of 1992 or more recently, world squash champion Datuk Nicol David.

The right leadership

BJSS is administered by the Education Ministry’s Physical Education and Sports Division. Located in the National Sports Complex compound in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur, the school is well-placed to realise its mission to generate world-class athletes. The nation’s topmost sports school has excellent training facilities but facilities alone do not guarantee success — the right person must be at the helm.

Enter former national hurdler Marina Chin, who was Malaysia’s Sportswoman of the Year in 1976 and 1977. The first former national athlete to be appointed principal of BJSS since its formation in 1996, Chin believes her background in sports played a part in her appointment and hopes her experience will move the school forward.

“The students need a good balance between education and sports,” Chin muses. “Of course, sports is the priority but it is also our obligation to ensure that the students have a future after they leave the sports world.”

As the ex-principal of SMK Sultan Abdul Samad in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, many may assume that Chin would have a smooth start at BJSS but she was in for a rude awakening.

“Some of the school’s badminton players didn’t even show up for their SPM exam,” she recalls.

“I had never encountered that in all my years of teaching!

“The staff panicked,” she continues. “It turned out that they were in Penang and did not inform anyone that they would be absent.”

To Chin’s credit, she quickly learnt from the experience and competition dates are now recorded to ensure that there are no more no-shows at major examinations.

Members of the synchronised swimming team going through their routines at the National Aquatic Centre, Bukit Jalil.

“An athlete was forced to forego the World Wushu Championship this year as it coincided with the SPM exam,” reveals Chin.

However, clauses do exist that allow a student to be graded via an agrotat system — that is, evaluating his or her academic performance in Form Four and Five — if a special request is put in by the sports association.

Well cared for

While some BJSS students excel in studies, the general consensus is that its students are more inclined towards physical activities compared to the hoi polloi.

Much of this is not only due to the rigorous training they undergo at the school but also the special care they receive.

“My students are given RM28 a day to spend on food,” says Chin, adding that sports attire is provided as well.

Apart from the emphasis on good nutrition, living conditions at BJSS are good and hostel improvements are done constantly.

“I hear they’re going to install air conditioning soon,” enthuses national diver Pandelela Rinong, 15, who took part in the women’s 10m platform pair event at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

“However, I may not get to enjoy it much because of overseas training stints.”

Pandelela missed eight months of classes this year as she had to undergo training in Kunming, China, in preparation for the Beijing Olympics, but she still managed to sit for her PMR exam.

“My teachers visited me for a week in Kunming,” she continues. “They helped me to catch up with my studies. I hope to do well in the language subjects.”

Chin (right) checking in on students during an English language classon her first day as principal last year. — Filepic

Chin says that is the first year BJSS teachers are sent abroad to help students and adds that more measures are in place to ensure that student-athletes training abroad do not lag behind in their studies.

“The students here play 22 different sports and train under the National Sports Council elite or junior programmes. Their academic time-table is flexible and is adjusted to ‘wrap’ around the training programmes,” says Chin.

“We practise flexible academic scheduling as this is more conducive to the training and competition needs of the students. They all have different schedules. Some of our students take weekends off while others have their breaks on Mondays. Time constraint is their biggest problem,” she adds.

Those with erratic training schedules may need to attend night classes. The school curriculum is based on a modular system, with attendance, homework and exams contributing 10%, 30% and 60% respectively to a student’s grade. Other support measures like additional classes and teachers accompanying teams when they train overseas ensure that the student-athletes remain competitive academically.

Of birds and bees

Most BJSS students train a minimum of four to six hours a day but some go up to eight. However, the rigorous schedule is no deterrent to students experiencing the storms and stress, as well as the joys of adolescence, including interest in the opposite sex. Chin laughs this off as part and parcel of growing up.

“They’re teenagers,” says Chin. “We don’t explicitly say that they can’t get involved in boy-girl relationships but in truth, the students don’t have much time.

Pandelela (left) dressed up as an Olympic goddess, during the Olympic Youth Education Camp in Singapore.

“They’re either at the training centres, classrooms, hall or hostels. Besides, guys are not allowed into the girls’ hostel and vice versa.”

BJSS students constantly strive to outperform each other. However, there is little room for prima donna tantrums or petty rivalry at BJSS.

“We treat everybody equally,” continues Chin. “Conflicts arise sometimes but they are usually under control.

“BJSS has a good counselling system. Our teacher are mentors who spend a lot of time with the students, talking to them to identify their problems.”

Eye on fame

Not every promising athlete makes it big in sports and the students at BJSS are under no illusions.

“Sometimes, things happen. For instance, injury can end a career,” says national paralympian Cheah Liek Hou, 20, who has just finished his two-year pre-university programme at BJSS.

“Academic studies back us up if this happens. I hope to study sports science at University Putra Malaysia.”

“Although I’ve won more than RM100,000 in prize money and incentives, I’ll play until I can’t go on. Then, I will pursue my career in sports science,” adds Cheah, who trained under former national badminton coach Han Jian. Cheah has won gold at two World Paralympic Games and three Asean Paralympic Games.

While Cheah is reaping the fruits of his labour, others like Pandalela still have some way to go before they realise their full potential. Still, Pandelela is making good progress.

Diving since the age of nine, Pandelela is the first Bidayuh to qualify for the Olympics.

“I am proud to represent the country and happy to have won gold at the Asean and Asian Games at Korat in Thailand, and Doha in Qatar,” she says shyly. “I hope to do better at future Olympics. I’m happy studying here. I’ve made many good friends, including my diving partner Cheong Jun Hong, who is always encouraging me to perform better.”

Adding that discipline is a key factor to succeed as an athlete, Pandelela notes that her coach Lan Wei from China is very good but a tad too strict before changing her mind with a playful “No lah, no... cannot say.”

Admitting that she finds diving easier than press conferences, Pandealela says she hopes to “win on the global stage” one day.

Related story:Some facts about BJSS

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