SEA Games: First gold for self, sport and country in the crosshairs of silat exponent Iqbal

National pencak silat exponent Iqbal Abdul Rahman competes in the artistic category. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

SINGAPORE - National pencak silat exponent Iqbal Abdul Rahman is a world champion and four-time Asian Championships gold medallist, but a SEA Games triumph has eluded him in five attempts.

The 28-year-old, who competes in the artistic category, is out to change this at the upcoming edition of the biennial competition from May 12-23 in Hanoi.

"No athlete wants to finish second or third, and I want to be on top of that podium," he told The Straits Times in a recent interview at the national silat squad's training base at the OCBC Arena.

"This is my sixth SEA Games so I feel it is about time I clinched that gold medal. I feel like my motivation level heading into this (edition) is so much more than previous ones."

A silver medal at the last edition of the SEA Games in the Philippines in 2019 is Iqbal's best showing. He also won a bronze medal in 2015.

Many of the traditional powerhouses in silat are nations in South-east Asia, like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, so competition at the SEA Games level is often as fierce - or even tougher - than at the world level.

Still, Sheik Alau'ddin, head coach of the Singapore squad, believes Iqbal has what it takes to triumph in Hanoi. He has seen Iqbal blossom from the time he picked up silat at the age of seven, to the athlete he is today.

"You can see the enthusiasm he has for the sport. He wants to be first, in front, in training and in competition," said Sheik, a two-time world champion and silat icon from the 1990s.

"He has been here awhile, he has always had good discipline and he has also developed leadership qualities."

Sheik, who is also the chief executive officer of the Singapore Silat Federation, said Iqbal is one of three athletes he hopes can win a title in Hanoi.

He has set a target for the team to return with a total of three gold, three silver and six bronze medals from the 16 events.

Although he declined to name which two athletes in the tanding (match) category he has pinned his hopes on for the other two triumphs, he said he hopes up to five can reach the final of their respective weight classes.

They are part of Sheik's "usual suspects", namely reigning world champions Sheik Ferdous, Sheik Farhan, Nurul Suhaila and Hazim Yusli.

Iqbal scored a silver medal at the last edition of the SEA Games in the Philippines in 2019. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

Iqbal, however, noted that preparations for this edition of the SEA Games have been challenging for the entire squad given the lead-up to the competition has clashed with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Despite not eating and drinking from dawn to dusk, the silat athletes still train twice a day, five days a week.

"Most of us have never had this situation before, so we struggled a bit at the start. But from the second week onward, we've managed to pick up the pace and pull through what we need to," he said.

Sheik believes this could benefit his squad.

"Training during this period is all about mental strength," he said. "It's about persevering and not thinking, 'I have to go slower or less intense because I am fasting'.

"Besides, if we can manage (the challenge), why can't we manage other tough situations during competition? It makes the athletes stronger in their minds, hearts, and bodies."

Iqbal's men's artistic single event is scheduled to be among the first medal events - it will take place on the eve of the Games' official opening ceremony - so he could be in contention for Singapore's first gold in Hanoi.

He said: "It would mean a lot if I could grab that first gold for silat and it would be amazing if I am also able to be the first gold for Singapore. I'm looking forward to going in and aiming to be the first to win."

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