December winner: Nurul Suhaila Saiful

ST Star of the Month: Beating pain to earn title

Silat exponent Nurul Suhaila Saiful, The Straits Times Star of the Month for December, receiving her award from F&N Foods brand manager Shannon Sia. With them is ST deputy sports editor Lim Han Ming.
Silat exponent Nurul Suhaila Saiful, The Straits Times Star of the Month for December, receiving her award from F&N Foods brand manager Shannon Sia. With them is ST deputy sports editor Lim Han Ming.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

World champ wants more after bouncing back from disappointment at Asian Games

Nurul Suhaila Saiful was in tears before her semi-final against Indonesia's two-time world champion Selly Andriani at last month's World Pencak Silat Championship.

The Singaporean had been denied a world title in 2015 and 2016 by the Indonesian, and though she defeated Selly at the Belgium Open last May, it had provided little comfort then.

"I was so nervous and I really wanted to win. I wanted it so badly that I was emotional before my fight and I pulled myself together a minute before my name was called (to enter the competition arena)," said the 23-year-old Singaporean.

She beat Selly in a bout that she said "felt like (it lasted) forever", then went on to clinch her first world title after beating Thailand's Janejira Wankrue in the Class D (60-65kg) final at the OCBC Arena.

For her achievement, Suhaila is The Straits Times' Star of the Month for December. The award is an extension of ST's Athlete of the Year prize, which was launched in 2008. Both are backed by F&N's 100Plus.

Said ST deputy sports editor Lim Han Ming: "It isn't easy to come back from a devastating disappointment like a medal-less outing at the Asian Games.

"We were heartened to see Suhaila bounce back to clinch her first world title and we hope she continues to dream big."

It has been almost a month since Suhaila won the world title, but recounting that semi-final still evokes strong feelings.

"When I went into the warm-up area, what I did wrong was I went in thinking of the outcome of the competition instead of the process and how I was going to fight," said Suhaila, who added that a pep talk from team captain Sheik Farhan Sheik Alau'ddin helped her to regain her composure.

"So I isolated myself from everyone, taught myself how to breathe again and reminded myself of all the tough training I went through.

"The only thing that would determine whether I won or lost was whether I believed in myself... so I wiped my tears, breathed in and told myself I've been ready for this fight for a very long time, so this is my time to beat her."

In the final, she realised that she had overcome her main obstacle (Selly) and that "no one was stopping me from (winning) that gold".

LOFTY TARGETS

I had such big dreams. I never knew it was this hard to get here; one title is so hard (to achieve), what more multiple titles... I'll take it one competition at a time but my goal stays the same.

NURUL SUHAILA SAIFUL, on her aim to win more world titles.

A maiden world title was the "perfect ending" to a tough year in which she returned empty-handed from Jakarta, where silat was an Asiad medal sport for the first time.

Recalling how it took her months for her feelings of doubt to dissipate, she said: "(It) hurt my confidence. It felt like all the months of hard training was for nothing.

"After every major Games, I would come home with at least a medal and preparation for the Asian Games started a year before.

"But I believe that if you're denied an opportunity, a greater one will come for you (later)."

It did.

Last month's victory also marks her first step towards a dream she has had since age 10 - being a multiple world champion.

Laughing, she said: "I had such big dreams. I never knew it was this hard to get here; one title is so hard (to achieve), what more multiple titles... I'll take it one competition at a time but my goal stays the same."

She knows remaining at the top is more difficult than getting there, and she intends to look to team-mates Sheik Farhan and Shakir Juanda, who have won three and two world titles respectively, as role models.

"She added: "Having teammates you can look up to and follow will make it easier for me (to cope with the increased pressure and expectations).

"I'm more motivated now to do better and I feel I'm capable of doing anything. So I'm really excited to see where this takes me in 2019."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2019, with the headline 'Beating pain to earn title'. Print Edition | Subscribe