STARRY-eyed swimmer Alex Lim Keng Liat was still a month shy of turning 16 when he set foot in the athletes’ dining hall at the Olympic Village in Atlanta, United States.
Sitting and having their meal was basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Johnson, who was in 1996 the face of world athletics.
And for a small-town boy from Sandakan, achieving his Olympic dream at such a young age does not get any bigger than that.
“The Olympics is the pinnacle of sports and where you want to aim for. I was 15 when I made the B cut at that time and so I was on the plane heading to Atlanta.
“It was the longest flight I’ve experienced but I was not tired at all as I was overwhelmed with excitement that I would be realising my dream.
“It’s certainly my most memorable Olympics of all as I met many superstar athletes like Shaq and Johnson.
“Unfortunately, I did not get to go to the opening ceremony as the swimming competition was starting the next day but I managed to take a picture with Muhammad Ali.”
Keng Liat said the experience was certainly an eye opener.
“I was one of the youngest in the Malaysian contingent at that time and I managed to break the national record in the 100m backstroke.
“Normally you don’t expect much when you are going to your first Olympics but to set a record and win your heat was a surreal experience.
“I was just a young guy at that time and I caught the eye of one of the American swimmers Gary Hall Jr (who went on to become an Olympic gold medallist).
“He recognised me when I went to study in California a few years later. He asked ‘aren’t you the young guy who swam very fast?’’’ recalled Keng Liat.
His achievement prompted the National Sports Council (NSC) to send him on a long-term training stint in the US.
And at 16, Keng Liat packed his bags to attend the Bolles School in Florida. While there, he spent hours in the pool and what kept him going was his single-minded determination to realise the potential he knew he had in him.
Keng Liat never looked back and repaid the NSC’s faith with a historic gold medal in the 100m backstroke at the Bangkok Asian Games, two years after his Olympics debut.
His winning time of 55.53 was also the Asian Games and Asian record at that time.
“I just went for it. I had taken silver in the 200m backstroke in my Asian Games debut days earlier and I just knew I could do it, ” recalled Keng Liat, who is until today the only Malaysian swimmer to win an Asiad gold medal.
After his feats in Bangkok, he was named National Sportsman of the Year and Olympian of the Year that year. Keng Liat added that his second Olympics outing in Sydney in 2000 was also memorable.
“Proud to be going in such a big group. There were the hockey and badminton teams in big numbers but aquatics had the biggest representation (nine swimmers and three divers) at that time.
“I don’t think this will happen again. I had a good chance to make the final going into the Olympics but I twisted my ankle a month before leaving.
“I was a good kicker and when you hurt your ankle, it pretty much affects how you perform. It was not a good performance but memorable nonetheless, ” said Keng Liat.
His last Olympics campaign was Athens 2004 and Keng Liat clocked the eighth fastest time in the heats to reach the 100m backstroke semi-finals.
He finished eighth in his semi-final heat and failed to make the final but is still the first Malaysian swimmer to reach that stage.
“You are competing in the birth place of the Olympics and it could not get any better than this, venue wise.
“But my performance was not spectacular. I felt like I had a good chance for a medal as I had set a national record the year before and it was a world-class time.
“But I miscalculated my preparation. I peaked earlier than expected, ” added Keng Liat, who set 54.77 en route to becoming the first Malaysian swimmer to enter a World Aquatics Championships final in Barcelona in 2003.
Standing only at 1.78m, Keng Liat is relatively short for his sport but made giant strides for Malaysian swimming.
Apart from the Asian Games and Olympics, Keng Liat is also the only Malaysian to contribute a swimming medal – not one but two at the Commonwealth Games.
He came agonisingly close to winning gold in the 50m backstroke, only separated by 0.02 of a second, at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and was later called the “The Mighty Mouse” by the British press.
Keng Liat also took bronze in his pet event days later.
Keng Liat quit the sport at the end of 2006 but his national records in the 100m and 200m backstroke events are still intact, which he feels does not bode well for the country.
“Other countries like Singapore and Vietnam are chasing medals at the Asian Games but we are still struggling at the SEA Games.
“If we can implement the right system and consider sending the most talented abroad, we have a chance to produce somebody who can be world class. It’s important for the swimmer too to have the right mindset and to think big, ” he noted while admitting that it is even harder now with swimming such a competitive sport.
“Just look at the last Rio Olympics. It is no longer a few big countries dominating as you can see Singapore, Kazakhstan and Spain producing Olympic champions for the first time, ” added Keng Liat, who later took up coaching roles in Sabah and Hong Kong.
Keng Liat produced another Olympian in Leung Chii Lin, who competed in the Beijing Games in 2008, and also butterfly national record holder Marellyn Liew.
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