Asean Para Games 2015: Shuttler hopes to smash barriers

Cheah Liek Hou knows that his opponents are eyeing a chance to dethrone him at the upcoming Asean Para Games, where he has been dominant since 2003.
Cheah Liek Hou knows that his opponents are eyeing a chance to dethrone him at the upcoming Asean Para Games, where he has been dominant since 2003.PHOTO: THE STAR

Cheah hopes to earn more recognition at home, win Malaysia's first Paralympic gold

He is a 10-time badminton world champion, the top-ranked shuttler and has amassed more than 100 gold medals.

Yet, in a nation where badminton is one of its most popular and successful sports, Malaysian Cheah Liek Hou's world could not be more different than that of compatriot Lee Chong Wei.

Some put it down to Cheah's stocky physique - at 1.7m and 93kg, he resembles a rugby player more than a lithe, light-footed shuttler.

Others say it is simply because he plays para-badminton.

For him, it is a mixture of both.

"The media do come to the airport when I win big events like the World Championships," Cheah told The Straits Times earlier this week.

"People who play badminton recognise me but it cannot be compared to the able-bodied players.

"Disability sport is not that recognised in many other countries, including Malaysia.

"Of course, I hope for more recognition but disability sport is not as competitive so it's normal."

Despite that, Cheah and his more illustrious counterpart Lee remain good friends who exchange congratulatory messages frequently and share a passion for fast cars.

What remains undeniable is Cheah's accomplishments, which include sweeping the singles and doubles titles at the biennial Para-Badminton World Championships since 2005.

He also owned an unbeaten streak that lasted a staggering 12 years and which ended only in August. Then, he lost to Indonesian Suryo Nugroho in the final of the Indonesia Para-Badminton International, but only after a gruelling three-day schedule that included having to play six matches on the second day.

Born with Erb's Palsy, a form of paralysis in the upper arm due to injury of the nerves caused during development in the womb, the condition affects Cheah's right arm.

He can lift it only slightly beyond his shoulder.

But that did not deter Cheah, 27, from picking up badminton at age nine.

Under the tutelage of his uncle, a former Indonesian national player, Cheah's love affair with the sport began in the garden of his Kuala Lumpur home.

His solid foundation, however, is a result of training under former able-bodied world champion Han Jian of China for five years.

The mastery of footwork helps to make up for his stout frame and disability, said Cheah who works full- time as a marketing executive.

"The basics are very important.

"They teach you how to move and with proper footwork, even as you grow older and heavier, you can still play the sport well.

"My movement is slightly slower because of my weaker side.

"But I just train harder on the right side to overcome it."

He also draws inspiration from his idol, Chinese superstar Lin Dan, whom Cheah met in 2003.

Said the Malaysian: "He is also a left-hander... and in his younger days, Lin Dan (now 32) was an aggressive player. I liked to attack when I was in my early 20s too.

"But now he plays a more controlled game and attacks only when he sees the opportunity.

"So I try to learn from him... how to play at the highest level despite getting older."

Even with his years of dominance, Cheah is not taking anything for granted at next week's Asean Para Games.

In defending the singles and doubles titles in the SU5 category - for those with upper limb impairment - he is also out to keep his unblemished record.

Cheah has never lost since his first participation in 2003.

"The competition is strong because when you win, everybody wants to try to beat you, they are all targeting you," said Cheah, who trains at least two hours each day.

With badminton making its Paralympics debut at the 2020 Tokyo edition, he has a bigger dream in mind - to end Malaysia's wait for a maiden Paralympic gold medal.

"I want to be the first to win the gold medal for my country."

A triumph like that would be sweet vindication for para-badminton's unsung No. 1.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2015, with the headline 'SHUTTLER HOPES TO SMASH BARRIERS'. Print Edition | Subscribe