Badminton Skills Picked Up During Childhood Play
“Malaysia, boleh!” (“Go Malaysia!”)
The uproarious cheers of the audience cause the venue to shake as if in an earthquake. This is a common sight in many badminton venues across Malaysia. This country, with its hot wind and sudden downpours, considers badminton a national sport. Badminton is one of the only sports that Malaysia can compete in at the world level, and top-level Malaysian badminton players are considered national heroes, and revered in an almost god-like way—similar to the way Brazilians think of soccer.
Malaysian Cheah Liek Hou is the country’s rising star, an 11-time winner (both Singles and Doubles events) of the Para-Badminton World Championships (Class SU5). He is in the running for a gold medal in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, where para-badminton will be an official event for the first time in Paralympics history.
Liek started playing badminton when he was nine years old. He was born with a paralyzed right shoulder, and cannot lift his arm above his shoulders. His playground, however—like many of the young boys in Malaysia—was on the streets. Though many think that badminton is a sport to be played in a gymnasium, the children of this country play outside, chasing shuttles in the breeze.
And so the badminton they end up playing is free-spirited, uninhibited. There are badminton courts all over the city streets, with children learning how to outwit their opponents and how to play flexibly, catching shuttles as they float along in the wind.
Cheah Liek Hou was one of these children.
“I played a lot of badminton in the yard. Oh, and on the streets, of course,” he says.
So came about his free-spirited style of play.
Said Tadashi Otsuka, member of the Japan national team for the Beijing Olympic Games (and current coach of the Nippon Sport Science University Badminton Club), “He’s an incredible technician. His net skills in particular are amazing. He can easily turn a bad situation into a good one.”
His highly changeable, fluid play style was borne of his childhood, and of his experiences playing and having fun with badminton on the streets.
Looking back, Liek says this.
“I just loved, loved, loved badminton. So I didn’t think for one second that I should stop playing because I have a disability. My right shoulder was weak, yes, but I didn’t spend any time worrying about it.”
Joining the National Junior Team for a Chance to Be a Professional Badminton Player
One individual noticed Liek’s talent at an early stage. His own mother.
“My mother must have felt something, watching me get so into badminton. One day, when I was only about nine, she told me, ‘You should be a professional badminton player.’”
Maybe these were the words that drove him to be where he is now—maybe not. Either way, he definitely was in an environment that would allow him to become a better badminton player.
After starting badminton, he entered the Bukit Jalil Sports School, the alma mater of many a famous Malaysian athlete. There, he even had the opportunity to practice with the legendary Lee Chong Wei, who was five years his senior and who had won silver medals at the Beijing, London, and Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
He also came under the training of Han Jian, a former member of the Chinese national team and winner of numerous able-bodied world championships, and showed immense growth in his base ability in badminton. Han Jian’s club team was always bursting at the seams, with over 200 children—all aiming to become professional badminton players—engaged in fierce rivalries and competition, and bettering each other as a result.
Liek made it into the national junior team when he was 15 years old. He had begun the journey towards being a top-level badminton player—a dream held by so many children in Malaysia—“even with a disability,” although these are words that Liek himself may not want to hear.
And he only got better after joining the team. According to Syahmi Sabron of the Badminton World Federation, “Due to his disability, his physical balance was not very good. So he did miss quite a bit, with his shuttles going past the lines, and so forth. But the coaches were able to focus on his weaknesses, and just work them over and over again until they were resolved.”
And so gradually, Liek began to win, then win repeatedly, at the junior tournaments, performing particularly well in the Doubles event. “I was maybe the fourth or fifth best Doubles player in the national juniors,” he said. Of course, his dream at the time was to be an Olympic medalist.
Around the same time, however, he came in contact with a different world. In 2003, soon after he entered the national junior team, he received an invitation to play in a para-badminton tournament. The Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) wanted to train para-badminton players. And Liek, more than any other player, seemed the perfect fit.
And just as BAM predicted, Liek was an incredible para-badminton player. After winning both the Singles and Doubles events at the 2005 Para-Badminton World Championships, he became an unstoppable force of nature—as evidenced by his eleven titles (in both Singles and Doubles events) at the World Championships, which are only held once every two years. His badminton skills, honed by the rivalry and competition he faced amongst so many other children aiming for the top, made it so that his opponents oftentimes could not even bring the game to a rally.
As he grew older, however, Liek began to struggle. Playing in both able-bodied and para-badminton tournaments meant he was extremely busy every day. He also wanted to finish school, coming from a family that placed a great emphasis on academics. His older sister was studying medicine, and Liek was majoring in Business Administration at Universiti Putra Malaysia, one of the leading universities in Asia.
“I knew I couldn’t do everything. That’s why I decided on para-badminton. At the time, I was also starting to see that it’d be difficult for me to play at a top, world-class level in able-bodied badminton.”
My Dream Isn’t Just My Dream—And That’s Why I Fight
Around that time, his peers, with whom he had undergone the intense training of his younger years, were beginning to leave the front lines of competition. Fortunately, Liek had a whole new world of competition—para-badminton—waiting for him.
“I’m lucky. I can continue playing badminton and work towards my goals.”
But wouldn’t someone with as glamorous a career as Liek feel a bit unfulfilled on the stages of para-badminton?
“No, I don’t feel that way at all,” he said immediately. “It’s not easy to win, and there’s all kinds of elements that go into it—training, of course, but also managing my physical condition, and so much more. And there’s a player I’ve lost to as well.”
This rival is Suryo Nugroho of Indonesia, a country that, like Malaysia, considers badminton a national sport. Born in 1995, he is 7 years younger than Liek. He had been one of the top players in the U12 division of the 2005 Surabaya International, and had dreamed of being an Olympic gold medalist. When he was 12, however, he got into a car accident on his way to practice and lost his left arm below the elbow. For three years after the accident, he stayed mostly holed up in his house. In 2010, however, he began playing para-badminton.
Liek has had more victories than losses against Suryo, but there is no question that Suryo is a strong rival. And of course, their goal is the same—to be the first para-badminton gold medalist at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
“Right now, I work at Wilson (the sporting goods manufacturer) and spend about three hours a day, four days a week practicing. My former teammates play with me and help me practice. They respect me as a para-athlete and support me—I’m very grateful for them.”
His former teammates’ dreams—to be world champion—have come to an end. However, they still have Liek fighting the fight. It is likely that they have entrusted their dreams to Liek, and support him in part to see this dream come true.
――My dream isn’t just my dream.
“Of course, my family supports me as well. And words can’t express how grateful I am for my coach.” This is the reason why Liek continues to fight. Entrusted with the dreams of so many, he goes forth, and keeps going, into new battles.
text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by X-1