Monday, 17 December 2012

The NST : Aquatics / Year in Review : Diving the saving grace

WORLD BEATERS: Pandelela leads charge but other disciplines flounder

THE national diving squad enjoyed a truly remarkable year as not only did they consolidate their status as the No. 2 team in Asia, but also continued to make huge inroads onto the world stage.

Pandelela Rinong was the most consistent local diver, winning several titles, including a historic bronze medal at the London Olympics in August.

It was Malaysia's first-ever Olympic medal in a sport other than badminton and for Pandelela, she became the first local women to achieve it.

Malaysia were mediocre in diving as recent as the 1990s but their fortunes changed dramatically at the 1999 Sea Games in Brunei when Yeoh Ken Nee won the country's first ever gold medal.

This was thanks largely to the Jaya '98 programme, which was incepted after Malaysia won the bid to host the Commonwealth Games.

Since then, the divers have gone on to make their mark and China coach Yang Zhuliang, who single-handedly revolutionised local diving, deserves credit.

Progress with the swimmers, however, has stagnated as none of those in the national programme are even close to Asian class.

Khoo Cai Lin achieved moderate success by qualifying for the Olympics but the freestyle swimmer failed to make any impact, finishing six seconds off her three-year-old national record of 8:45.36s, but it was enough to qualify for next year's World Championships.

As for Kevin Yeap, the Sea Games gold medallist was star-struck when he swam against Olympic champion Sun Yang of China in last month's Asian Championships and it motivated him to push harder for fourth placing in the 400m freestyle.

Swimming was once the top aquatic sport in Malaysia but has since lost out in terms of funding and priority due to lack of success in recent years.

The swimmers are also not training in a conducive environment as facilities at the National Aquatic Centre in Bukit Jalil are either too old or do not meet international standards.

In synchronised swimming, the team -- led by Katrina Ann Abdul Hadi -- continued their dominance in this region by sweeping four titles in the Southeast Asian Championships in Singapore in July.

But their dominance in the sport is only in this region and the team need to invest long hours in training and also participate in bigger competitions if they hope to progress and make a name, at least in Asia first.
Local divers, however, made the nation proud through several outstanding performances in world class meets.

The squad started the season with a superb performance at the World Cup in London.

Malaysia not only had eight divers qualifying for the Olympics, but also won a historic medal, a bronze, through Bryan Nickson Lomas and Huang Qiang in the 3-metre springboard synchro.

The Fujian-born Huang, initially hired as a coach in 2006, and Lomas then continued their impressive performance by winning gold in the United States and Canada legs of the Diving Grand Prix Circuit.
Huang, however, failed to draw inspiration from his previous wins with Lomas by finishing eighth in the men's 3m springboard synchro and 19th in the individual discipline at the Olympics.

As a coach, however, Huang was the man who groomed Pandelela in her early years.

Pandelela started the year with three medals (one silver and two bronze) in the platform individual and synchro disciplines at the FINA Diving World Series in Dubai and Beijing in March.

She then went on to carve out a historic achievement for Malaysia in the Montreal leg of the Diving Grand Prix by winning the platform title.

Pandelela and Leong Mun Yee were among the favourites in the London Olympics but they did not make the podium due to one bad dive, eventually finishing seventh.

In the 3m springboard synchro, Pandelela and Cheong Jun Hoong finished eighth but the former made amends by winning a bronze in the platform individual.

But that was Pandelela's last performance as an ankle injury, sustained during training in September, sidelined her from the Asian Championships and the Asean University Games.

Ken Nee bade farewell to competitive diving in grand style by becoming the first Malaysian to reach an Olympic final in the sport in London.

The 29-year-old reached the final of the 15-field men's 3m springboard and finished 10th.

Ken Nee has since joined the National Sports Council as national assistant coach.

Zhuliang's systematic training also churned out a respectable pool of junior divers who went on to make an impact in the Southeast Asian Championships and the Asian Championships.

Among the promising youngsters are Dhabitah Nur, Jasmine Lai, Kam Ling Kar, Loh Zhiayi and Chew Yiwei, who are being groomed by Zhuliang for the 2016 Olympics.

It is hoped that by then, the divers will be able to challenge China for medals.

As for swimming, the Amateur Swimming Union of Malaysia needs to have re-look at its programme as none of the current batch is good enough.

Kevin, Cai Lin, Siow Yi Ting and Christina Loh are almost unbeatable in their pet events in this region but they are looked on as minnows in bigger championships.

As for water polo, Malaysia need a proper grassroots programme to promote the sport among the youth.
At the recent Southeast Championships, the men's and women's teams failed to win a match.

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