Malaysian athletes who made us proud in 2021

2021 was a rollercoaster ride for most Malaysians as we battled the Covid-19 pandemic with more lockdowns and uncertainties. Nonetheless, it was a great year for sports, at least, with multiple international sporting events taking place, such as the Olympics, Euro 2020 and the Paralympic Games, among others.

Although we were devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were a series of remarkable achievements by our athletes that made us proud. Here’s a list of 13 of them who embodied the ‘Malaysia Boleh’ spirit and proved to us that Malaysians have sporting talent.

1. Lee Zii Jia – the badminton player who is the talk of 2021

Lee Zii Jia
Image credit: @leeziijia

2021 was a big year for men’s singles badminton player Lee Zii Jia, who gained popularity in March when he won the All England Open Championships against Viktor Axelsen from Denmark. This incredible achievement put Lee in the spotlight with many locals showing a growing interest in the budding shuttler’s activities on and off the court. 

After the All England Open win, Lee made news headlines several times when he released a song and his fans formed a new fandom called ‘Shattlehearts’ in support of the shuttler during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Apart from this, Lee also placed 7th in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Rankings before being nominated for a BWF Award in the Most Improved Player of The Year category. His popularity among Malaysians became evident when he became the top searched athlete of 2021 on Google Malaysia. 

Read more about Lee Zii Jia here.

2. Azizulhasni Awang – the track cyclist who revived our hopes at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Azizulhasni Awang
Image credit: @azizulhasniawang

National track cyclist Azizulhasni Awang, who is the second most searched athlete by Malaysians in 2021 on Google Malaysia, revived the country’s medal hopes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics when he won a silver medal in the men’s keirin event.

Though Malaysians would typically rely on badminton players to bring home Olympic medals, Azizul made everyone believe that athletes in other sports such as track cycling can contribute medals as well with this latest win.

His silver medal win at the Olympics also makes him the only Malaysian athlete to win medals in the cycling event. Shortly before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Azizul’s achievements as a national track cyclist was also rewarded with a Datukship title conferred by the Terengganu state government in July 2021.

Read more about Azizulhasni Awang here.

3. Nicol David – the squash icon who became the greatest athlete of all time

Nicol David
Image credit: Nicol David

When we talk about sports in Malaysia, there’s no one quite like the legendary squash player Nicol Ann David. The nation’s pride, who retired two years ago, made a historic achievement in 2021 when she was crowned the World Games’ Greatest Athlete of All Time in an online poll held by the International World Games Association on its 40th anniversary.

Nicol amassed an impressive grand total of 318,943 votes against runner-up James Kehoe, an Irish tug-of-war athlete who scored 113,120 votes and Ukraine’s powerlifter Larysa Solovlova who came in third with 80,790 votes. 

Though already a few years into her retirement, Nicol continues to make international headlines for her stunning performance and achievements throughout her career.

4. Pandelela Rinong Pamg – the national diver who’s the epitome of girl power

Pandelela Rinong
Image credit: @pandelela

National diver Pandelela Rinong represented Malaysia again in 2021 at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Although the odds did not favour her and she returned home without a medal, Pandelela still set a record by becoming the first female Malaysian athlete to participate in the Olympics four times. With her participation in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, she is now tied with badminton legend Lee Chong Wei who has competed in four Games too. 

Earlier in 2021, Pandelela also made history by winning the country’s first-ever gold medal at the Fina Diving World Cup in Japan. The most decorated female Malaysian Olympian continues to work hard for the next Olympics with hopes of winning the country’s first gold medal – something we can all look forward to witnessing.

Read more about Pandelela Rinong here.

5. Soh Wai Ching – the tower runner who made history in 2021

Malaysian athletes - Soh Wai Ching
Image credit: @mastowerrunner

Malaysian tower runner Soh Wai Ching, who made history by becoming the first Asian to win the Empire State Building Run Up, is another national athlete who embodied the ‘Malaysia Boleh’ spirit in 2021.

Soh completed the race by blazing up 1,576 stairs of the world-famous tower in New York in just 10 minutes and 46 seconds. Although tower running may not be a well-known sport among Malaysians, Soh made a name for himself at international competitions in 2021.

In August 2021, he won the German Towerrunning Championship at the Cologne Tower, scaling 39 floors and 714 steps at an elevation gain of 142m in just three minutes and 24 seconds. In November 2021, Soh also set a new course record for tower running at the Willis Tower in Chicago which was once the tallest building in the world with a completion time of 12 minutes 57 seconds.

6. Abdul Latif Romly – the Paralympian who won a gold medal despite an injury

Malaysian athletes - Abdul Latif Romly
Image credit: @latifromly

2021 was a great year for Malaysia at the Paralympic Games as well, as our athletes won three gold medals in total. Abdul Latif Romly made history again in 2021 by defending his gold medal at the Rio 2016 Paralympics in the long jump event despite suffering from a groin injury during the finals in Tokyo.

Due to this injury, he was unable to complete all six jumps in the finals and left the event in a wheelchair. But his hard work paid off as he was crowned the winner once again.

Abdul, who currently holds the world record for the T20 long jump event, also became the Paralympian who won the most gold medals in Malaysian history after adding another one to his trophy cabinet from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

Read more about Abdul Latif Romly here.

7. Ziyad Zolkefli – the shot putter who was robbed of his gold medal

Malaysian athletes - Ziyad Zolkefli
Image credit: @ziyadzolkefli

Despite not winning a medal at the Paralympics 2020 Games, shot putter Ziyad Zolkefli remained a much-loved national athlete widely celebrated by Malaysians.

Ziyad, who broke the world record for the F20 shot put event in the Games with a distance of 17.94m, returned home without a medal as he was disqualified from the event by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) for showing up late to the roll call area. 

This decision sparked a heated argument on social media as Malaysians rushed to defend Ziyad, who was said to be robbed of his gold medal and a new world record. Although the appeal to reconsider his participation failed in the end, Ziyad certainly made Malaysians proud with his performance at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Read more about Ziyad Zolkefli here.

8. Aaron Chia – one half of the badminton team who gifted us the first medal at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Malaysian athletes - Aaron Chia
Image credit: @aaronchiatengfong

Badminton is a major event that most Malaysians look forward to for medal wins at the Olympics. However, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics happens to be the first one without star badminton player Lee Chong Wei, who retired in 2019.

Nonetheless, we had a number of talented athletes who made their Olympic debut – including men’s doubles player Aaron Chia. He did not hold back during the Games, delivering his best performance along with his partner Soh Wooi Yik and gifting Malaysia’s first and only medal in badminton at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Aaron also participated in the Sudirman Cup 2021 with Soh and helped Malaysia win the bronze medal. His achievements in 2021 did not go unrecognised, as he was nominated for the 2020/2021 BWF Awards in the Most Improved Player of the Year category.

Read more about Aaron Chia here

9. Soh Wooi Yik – the other half of the badminton team who gifted us the first medal at Tokyo Olympics

Malaysian athletes - Soh Wooi Yik
Image credit: @sohwooiyik

Together with Aaron Chia, men’s doubles badminton player Soh Wooi Yik contributed to Malaysia’s first medal win at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It was Soh’s first time at the Olympic Games too – which goes to show just how many rising shuttlers we have in Malaysia who we can look to cheering on at future competitions.

Soh was also part of the Malaysian team in the Sudirman Cup 2021 where he played with Aaron and helped Malaysia win the bronze medal. Soh was also nominated for the 2020/2021 BWF Awards in the Most Improved Player of the Year category.

Read more about Soh Wooi Yik here

10. Bonnie Bunyau Gustin – the powerlifter who won a gold medal at the Paralympics

Malaysian athletes - Bonnie Bunyau Gustin
Image credit: Majlis Sukan Negara Malaysia

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics was arguably the greatest time for Malaysia as our athletes won a total of five medals comprising three golds and two silvers – the most medals won at a Paralympic Games yet. Sarawakian powerlifter Bonnie Bunyau Gustin became the first to do so with his gold medal win in powerlifting. 

This win was a historic one too, as Bonnie was the first Malaysian to win a gold medal for powerlifting in the men’s 72kg event where he set a game record by lifting 228kg.

About two months before the Paralympics, Bonnie set a stunning world record by lifting 230kg in the same event at the World Para Powerlifting World Cup in Dubai. Despite his disabilities, Bonnie made several historical achievements in 2021 that made Malaysians tremendously proud.

11. Cheah Liek Hou – the Paralympian who won the first gold medal in badminton

Malaysian athletes - Cheah Liek Hou
Image credit: Cheah Liek Hou 谢儮好

Winning a gold medal in an international sporting event is not easy as it takes years of hard work and dedication. After a staggering 18 years of waiting, Cheah Liek Hou finally got the chance to represent Malaysia and returned home with a gold medal for badminton in the SU5 category of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Cheah’s significant gold medal win marks Malaysia’s first gold at the Paralympic Games in badminton, introduced for the first time at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. But it certainly won’t be our last. 

His extraordinary performance at the Games finally earned him long-awaited recognition, which was capped off with a much-deserved 2020/2021 BWF Awards nomination in the Male Para Badminton Player of The Year category.

12. Chew Wei Lun – the first Malaysian to win a Paralympic medal in boccia

Malaysian athletes 2021 - Chew Wei Lun
Image credit:
Majlis Sukan Negara Malaysia

Our national athletes achieved a series of firsts at the Paralympic Games – including our first ever medal in the boccia sport event. Achieving this remarkable feat for the country is Chew Wei Lun, who clinched a silver medal in the Paralympic sport which doesn’t always make the spotlight. 

For the uninitiated, boccia is a precision ball sport played by athletes with physical disabilities. The game is played by individuals, pairs or teams of three who throw red or blue coloured leather balls as close as they can to a white target ball called a ‘jack’. Several rounds are played before the winner is decided.

Chew, who is known as Malaysia’s ‘Silent Killer’ due to his reputation as a dark horse in competitions, won the silver medal in the boccia BC1 category.

Off the court, his story serves as an inspiration to many. Chew was quoted saying in 2017 that he had to be independent since he was young. He was raised by his grandfather before briefly living in a home for individuals with disabilities at 9 years old. His love for the sport remained with him through the ups and downs of his life, and one of his dreams was to represent the nation through his love of boccia – something he has remarkably achieved.

13. Jong Yee Khie – the powerlifter who gifted us a silver medal at the Paralympics

Malaysian athletes 2021 - Jong Yee Khie
Image credit: Majlis Sukan Negara Malaysia

It takes a lot of courage for people to find the motivation to move on with their lives after losing one of their limbs in an accident. Paralympian Jong Yee Khie, whose right leg was amputated above the knee after a motorcycle accident in 2005, is one of these inspiring individuals – his Paralympic journey shows us all that there’s still hope even after a tragedy in life. 

Jong took up powerlifting after his leg amputation in 2008, and has since won several medals in the sport. The silver medal he won at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics in the men’s 107kg event also happens to be Malaysia’s first medal in the event. Other impressive medals in his trophy cabinet include a silver and a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games.

Malaysian athletes who made us proud in 2021

From winning gold medals at the Olympic and Paralympic Games to being named the most searched person in sports, Malaysian athletes have simply made us all proud with their remarkable achievements and stellar performances at prestigious sporting events in 2021.

These athletes will certainly be remembered by all of us for many more years as they showed the nation and world what Malaysians are capable of and that Malaysia indeed ‘Boleh’.

Read more articles about Malaysian athletes here:

Cover image adapted from: @leeziijia, Nicol David and @azizulhasniawang

This article was updated on 12th January 2022.

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