World champion Loh Kean Yew is 'just getting started'
Hours after he was crowned badminton world champion, Loh Kean Yew found himself upgraded to a business class seat for his return flight from Huelva, Spain to Singapore.
But instead of revelling in his new title and the perks that accompanied it, the 24-year-old thought of his team. Instinctively he asked if national singles coach Kelvin Ho and physiotherapist Ho Jiaying could be upgraded too.
The Singapore Badminton Association (SBA) had brought forward his flight by a day to Monday (Dec 20) so he could get treatment for his injured ankle, and after his request to SBA, all three flew in business class.
"My support team also deserves support," Loh told The Straits Times matter-of-factly. "Behind the scenes, my coach has been helping me with the strategies and admin work, and after the semi-final, when I couldn't walk, the physio worked on my foot from 10.30pm to 1.30am just so I can walk the next day."
And Loh didn't just walk on Sunday. He flew about the court chasing every shuttle and his relentless, aggressive approach helped him beat India's world No. 14 Kidambi Srikanth 21-15, 22-20 in the World Championships final.
His Instagram bio now reads "2021 Badminton World Champion" and he is expected to rise to world No. 15 on Tuesday, but Loh insisted many things will remain the same.
These include his character, hunger, work ethic, goals and just the joy he derives from the sport he first picked up when he was five as his family played badminton in front of their Penang terrace house, using the gate as a net.
He added: "Yes, I won the world championships, but there's still a long way to go and I'm just getting started. There's still so much I can improve on and so many things I still want to achieve.
"This world title gives me that extra motivation and belief to know that I'm on the right track and I will continue to work hard to try and achieve more success, including a medal at the next Olympics."
This will not be his first life-changing moment, as Loh looks back at the decision to follow in his third brother Kean Hean's footsteps to enrol at the Singapore Sports School in 2010, which eventually led to him receiving Singapore citizenship five years later.
Laughing, he said: "I was angry at that time because my friends were all in Malaysia. But my mother already bought the ticket, so what to do?
"But in Singapore, I had good opportunities to study and play on an international stage. Along the way, so many people from SBA, Sport Singapore, Singapore Sport Institute and many others supported and took good care of me, and I wouldn't be what I am today without all their help."
There was an unexpected benefactor along his journey to the top.
Loh's first taste of improbable success came in 2009 when he beat Lee Zii Jia to win Malaysia's National Junior Grand Prix Under-12 final. He then stunned two-time Olympic champion and five-time world champion Lin Dan in the 2019 Thailand Masters final.
But the coronavirus pandemic struck at the end of that year, affecting his preparations for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, where he narrowly lost to Indonesia's world No. 8 Jonatan Christie and missed out on the knockout stage.
The eventual champion, Denmark's world No. 1 Viktor Axelsen, then invited him to join his training camp in Dubai for a month in August-September. It was another watershed moment.
Loh said: "I learnt from the best. I experienced the intensity at which he trained, I saw how focused and consistent he was, and I tried to apply this on my own game. I also saw gaps in my game and tried to fix them.
"After that, I was up and down, screwed up a few times, won the Dutch Open and Hylo Open but got knocked out early at the Denmark and French Opens and the Indonesia Masters. But I kept going, kept trying to be better than the day before, and never gave up."
And on his fifth attempt, he finally beat Axelsen, this time in the opening round of the World Championships en route to becoming Singapore's first badminton world champion.
When asked what this achievement meant, he replied in typical selfless fashion.
"It shows we can accomplish great things as a small country if we dare to dream and work for it," said Loh.
"Hopefully, this will raise the level of interest and support for local sports and we can achieve more sporting glory for Singapore."