Former No. 1 Sze Mei works hard behind the scenes to raise standard of para shuttlers

This is our game plan: National para badminton coach Woon Sze Mei with Mohd Ikhwan Ramli (left) and Noor Azwan Noorlan during a training session at the Malaysian Paralympics Training Centre in Kuala Lumpur.— MUHAMAD SHAHRIL ROSLI/The Star

PETALING JAYA: The Kampung Pandan training hall was rather quiet except for the sound of shuttlers on wheelchairs moving around with ease trying to get the better of one another under the watchful eyes of coach Woon Sze Mei.

It was a practice session for both singles and doubles players but no one tipped backwards or knocked into each other – that’s how good they were.

Occasionally, the soft-spoken Sze Mei will step in to give instructions in a gentle way and the match will resume.

It’s hard work and long hours but Sze Mei’s humility, patience and down-to-earth character makes her the best fit for the national wheelchair badminton team.

Taking a brave leap into coaching para shuttlers has indeed paid dividends for the former national No. 1 women’s singles player and coach.

Nine years ago, Sze Mei had decided to switch to guiding wheelchair badminton players despite not having much knowledge on the sport.

Sze Mei had first found out about para badminton when she was still a player through her former coach Moe Chin Kiat.

“Chin Kiat was my coach when I was in the Selangor state team,” said Sze Mei.

“He then started coaching para shuttlers and when I was in the national team, he asked me if I could come and spar with his charges during my free time.

“I agreed and had sparring sessions once or twice a week.”

Sze Mei had not thought about coaching at that time.

“I was still a player and had not thought about what I was going to do after I retired,” said Sze Mei.

“At that time, I was impressed by the para shuttlers’ determination to fight hard despite their disabilities. Their spirit was a motivation for me as well to do better.”

Sze Mei featured in the 2004 Uber Cup Finals in Jakarta alongside the likes of Wong Mew Choo, Chin Eei Hui and Wong Pei Tty.

Shortly after the tournament, she made the decision to hang up her racquet at the age of 26 due to ankle injuries.

Sze Mei then re-joined the national team as women’s singles assistant coach to Wong Tat Meng.

It was a new experience for me as a coach. I learned a lot from Tat Meng on managing the players,” recalled Sze Mei.

“I was in the national team for about five to six years before I left to coach the juniors in the Bukit Jalil Sports School (BJSS).”

After three years as a coach in BJSS, Sze Mei decided to take on a new challenge.

“I saw that there were not enough coaches in the wheelchair badminton team,” said Sze Mei.

“I didn’t have any knowledge on this sport but I wanted to take on this challenge. I wanted to help to develop this sport in the country.

“Coach Moe taught me about the sport. I also observed the players from other countries.

“There are many differences between para and able-bodied badminton.

“One of it is the system where able-bodied players need to transition from junior level to back-up before joining the senior team but we only have the senior level for para badminton.

“So, it’s not easy as para players need to learn everything from scratch in the senior level.

“In wheelchair badminton, the players need to learn how to push the wheelchair with their arms and hit the shuttle.

“It’s not easy as their arms need to be strong to do this. Players also need to learn the rules where only half court will be used in singles and the whole court in doubles.

“Also, there is no net play as the wheelchairs will hit each other if the players go near the net.”

Sze Mei also highlighted the importance of good communication between players and coach.

“To understand the issues that the players face, we need to communicate well with each other,” said Sze Mei.

“I need to know more about their disability, so that I can help them accordingly.”

Under Sze Mei’s guidance, men’s doubles pair Mohd Ikhwan Ramli and Noor Azwan Noorlan captured silver in the 2022 World Championships in Tokyo, Japan.

Ikhwan also won a bronze in the men’s singles both in the world meet and the Hangzhou Asian Games last October.

“I have been coaching Ikhwan since 2016. He was a wheelchair basketball player before switching to badminton,” said Sze Mei.

“Physically, he is strong thanks to his training in basketball. He just needed to hone his badminton skills.

“I’m happy with Ikhwan and Azwan’s achievements so far. Both are hardworking and hungry to do well.”

Sze Mei’s biggest mission this year is to help Ikhwan and Azwan qualify for the Paris Paralympics.

“My target is for Ikhwan and Azwan to make the cut for the Paralympics for the first time,” said Sze Mei.

“The last competition where both can collect Paralympic ranking points is the World Championships (Feb 20-25) in Thailand and we are now preparing for this. I hope they can at least win a medal in the world meet.”

With a strong-willed coach and one who is determined to make a difference, it will not be a surprise to see Sze Mei’s charges going the extra mile to justify her faith in them.

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