ST Athlete of the Year: I'm a world champ but it hasn't changed my fighting spirit, says Loh Kean Yew

From now till April 22, ST will honour outstanding Singaporeans who are nominees for the 2021 ST Athlete of the Year award. They defied the odds, injuries and the pandemic to chase their sporting dreams, setting new standards of excellence for others to follow.

Loh Kean Yew has set his sights on becoming the first Singaporean shuttler to capture an Olympic medal. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - For the first eight months of last year, Loh Kean Yew could not muster a single meaningful victory on the badminton court.

At the Yonex and Toyota Thailand Opens in January, he won the first game in each of the opening rounds but went on to lose both matches. Then at the Tokyo Olympics in July, needing a victory against Indonesia's Asian Games champion Jonatan Christie to progress to the round of 16, Loh again fell short.

"The two defeats in Thailand were a good wake-up call for me because it has been a long time since we previously played in any tournament because of Covid-19," said the 24-year-old.

"After that, I trained a lot harder than before. And it was the same after the Olympics - I was aiming for a medal but got knocked out at the group stage, so I was determined to make up for lost time and ground."

The final few months of 2021 is now Singapore sporting history. Following a one-month training stint with Olympic champion and world No. 1 Viktor Axelsen and a few players in the top 60, Loh won the Dutch Open, Hylo Open in Germany, and the biggest one of all - the World Championships in Spain.

Despite an injured ankle and sole in the latter rounds, the unseeded Singaporean claimed the scalps of Axelsen, world No. 3 Anders Antonsen and other higher-ranked players like Kantaphon Wangcharoen and Kidambi Srikanth.

He stunned not just the badminton world but also himself in Huelva, becoming the Republic's first world champion in the sport, and earning himself a nomination for the 2021 ST Athlete of the Year Award, which is backed by 100Plus.

"I'm confident in my own abilities, but the achievement came too suddenly," said Loh with a laugh.

The landmark win has brought with it fortune and fame. Well-wishers contributed around $500,000, while he is also endorsing brands like Li-Ning and Seiko.

Fellow players seek wefies with him at international tournaments, while teenage girls shriek when they spot him at fast-food restaurants here, as his Instagram followers surged to over 200,000 from around 4,000 in 2019.

This year, he reached the India Open final and helped Singapore claim a historic bronze at the Badminton Asia Team Championships and qualify for the Thomas Cup. But in both tournaments he lost to fellow generational talents Lakshya Sen in India and Lee Zii Jia in Malaysia, leading to some criticism about the quick drop in form.

Life is no longer the same anymore, his results - good or bad - seem magnified, and it takes getting used to.

Candidly, Loh said: "I need to know and accept that I'm now a world champion, and I need to face the pressure and expectations. I cannot always be running away from it.

"It will be different from how I used to handle pressure, but I will learn and hopefully one day I will be able to handle it well.

"But what doesn't change are my love for badminton, my fighting spirit and the putting in of hard work to continue to improve to get to where I want to be."

The world No. 10 has set his sights on climbing the rankings and becoming the first Singaporean shuttler to capture an Olympic medal, hopefully at Paris 2024.

He said: "The world title showed anything is possible. That, and the support Singaporeans have shown towards me and my team-mates, are big motivation for me to continue to strive to bring more sporting glory for our country."

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