SINGAPORE - Loh Kean Yew was his usual affable self when he visited The Straits Times office for a show held to honour him as the ST Athlete of the Year 2021.
It was a packed day for him - the ceremony was sandwiched between two training sessions - but the 24-year-old never looked hurried, chatting with guests and posing for a few photographs.
Life has only gotten busier since he became a badminton world champion last December but he has remained steadfastly grounded.
He said: "I'm happy that I won it despite having all the other strong contestants out there. All of us deserve to win this title because we all have our own sacrifices and difficulties.
"We've all gone through our own stresses and have overcome everything. It means a lot to me because it's also (validation that) my sacrifices and hard work have paid off."
He began last year in indifferent form with some early round exits but turned his season around spectacularly, winning the Dutch Open in October, Germany's Hylo Open a month later and capping it off at the World Championships in Huelva, Spain.
Despite an injured ankle and sole in the latter rounds, the unseeded Singaporean beat Tokyo 2020 Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, world No. 3 Anders Antonsen and former world No. 1 Kidambi Srikanth en route to an improbable gold medal.
Loh was one of seven nominees, the largest tally in the history of the annual award that started in 2009 and continues to be backed by 100Plus. Last year's edition was not held due to the pandemic.
Besides Loh, the other candidates were Yu Mengyu (table tennis), Kimberly Lim and Cecilia Low (sailing), Aloysius Yapp (pool), Max Maeder (kite foiling), Yip Pin Xiu (para-swimming) and Shayna Ng (bowling).
ST sports editor Lee Yulin headed an eight-member judging panel for this year's award that included Singapore Hockey Federation president Mathavan Devadas, national floorball coach Louise Khng and national shooter Jasmine Ser.
Lee said: "Team Singapore made a smashing return from their Covid-induced hiatus, and the breadth and depth of their achievements are reflected in the fact we have seven nominees instead of the usual five.
"That said, it was Kean Yew's victory that stood out. His achievement led to parents signing their kids up for badminton lessons and a surge in the sales of rackets and shuttlecocks. That, to me, is testament to how inspirational his achievement was."
Past winners include swimmers Tao Li (2008) Quah Ting Wen (2009), the national women's table tennis team (2010), badminton player Fu Mingtian (2011), para equestrienne Laurentia Tan (2012), footballer Safuwan Baharudin (2013), swimmer Joseph Schooling (2014, 2016), para swimmer Yip Pin Xiu (2015), para table tennis player Jason Chee (2017), bowler Muhammad Jaris Goh (2018) and Brazilian jiu-jitsu exponent Constance Lien (2019).
Jennifer See, F&N Foods Singapore managing director, said: "The spirit and objectives of the award align with 100Plus' commitment to support our athletes and encourage them to excel in their sport. Through our various initiatives, we hope to contribute to the national effort of nurturing potential young athletes in Singapore.
"We would like to congratulate the nominees of this award on their stellar achievements. The nominees have all exhibited strong physical and emotional endurance to attain the pinnacle of sports excellence."
The year ahead is a busy one for Loh. He is aiming to win the men's singles gold at next month's Hanoi SEA Games before turning his attention to the July 28-Aug 8 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, defending his title at the World Championships in Tokyo in late August and then the Asian Games in Hangzhou a month later.
But his immediate focus is self-improvement.
On what his goals are, he said: "To maintain consistency, to find out how to be consistent in training and being disciplined. And for tournaments how do I perform well. It's not possible to perform in all the matches, but I'm working on how to perform well and consistently for most matches."