KUCHING: Jonathan Nyepa has become the first Sarawakian to run the 200m in under 21sec.
The 23-year-old, who is currently undergoing a nine-month training stint in the US, was timed at 20.92sec in a meet in Athens, Georgia on April 26.
Sarawak’s top sprinter is a rarity. The fast lane is usually crowded with big and flamboyant personalities. Think Carl Lewis and Usain Boit on the world stage.
Local sprint legend Watson Nyambek had and continues to have more than his fair share of controversy.
And no one can deny that current national 100m record holder Khairul Jantan, who erased Watson’s 10.30sec mark (set in 1998) with 10.18 at the 2016 Sarawak Sukma, craves adulation.
But Jonathan is, by most accounts, a quiet and unassuming young man, contented to just work hard, away from the limelight.
Furthermore, he has to overcome quite a few setbacks in his short career so far.
The somewhat late developer first emerged as a top school sprinter when he competed at the 2013 MSSM Inter-State Championships in Pahang as a 17-year-old fifth former from SMK Bakun, Belaga in Bintulu Division.
He finished fifth in both the 100 (11.10sec) and 200m (22.68) but anchored the Sarawak 4x100m relay squad to a bronze medal.
A bit disappointed but his raw talent got noticed. He took up an offer to study at Bukit Jalil Sports School.
The exploits of Watson Nyambek are well known to sports fans and any aspiring sprinter in Sarawak or Malaysia.
By 2013 Watson had retired for over a decade but records of the former Olympian remained intact.
Torn away from familiar surroundings Jonathan, nevertheless, got down to serious training in Kuala Lumpur.
He improved quickly. At the 2014 Perlis Sukma he clocked the fastest time of 10.64sec in the 100m heats to emerge as the hot favourite to win. But he suffered a false start and was disqualified in the semi-finals.
He did bounce back to take the 200m bronze in 21.91sec.
After lowering his personal bests to 10.56 and 21.63sec in the two events he made his debut as a member of the national 4x100m relay team at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore.
Khairul Jantan hogged much of the limelight in the lead up to and aftermath of the 2016 Sarawak Sukma. Besides breaking Watson’s 100m national record the Malacca teenage sensation also won the 200m (21.03sec) in Kuching.
Jonathan finished second in the 100m in 10.36.
The media did not report that he also broke Watson’s Sarawak state record of 21.37sec in the 200m (set in 2000) when he finished third in a time of 21.34.
He improved it further to 21.18 at the 2016 Malaysian Open. But Watson’s 10.30sec still remained as Sarawak’s state record.
On 27 June 2017, Jonathan finally broke the record which had stood for 19 years. He froze the electronic timer at 10.28sec in an invitation meet in Jeongseon, Korea.
But Khairul stole the limelight a month later in Kuala Lumpur with a sensational time of 20.90sec to break Mani Jegathesan’s 49-year-old national 200m record.
He went on to become the SEA Games 100m champion with a time of 10.34sec as Jonathan finished a poor fifth.
Since the 2017 SEA Games, however, the Sarawak man appears to have gained the upperhand on his arch rival.
Both failed to make the 100m final at the 2018 Asian Games although Jonathan finished fourth (10.43) to Khairul’s sixth (10.45) in their respective semi-finals.
He also beat Khairul in both the 100 and 200m at the 2018 Malaysia Open.
In the longer distance Jonathan re-wrote his own Sarawak record with a new standard of 21.10sec.
The current training stint in the US (from February to October) came about partly because of grumbling in certain quarters that the Sarawak sprinter had not been given due recognition.
As if to prove the point Jonathan beat all local rivals in the first major 100m race of the 2019 season with a win in 10.49sec in the Perak All Comers Meet just days before he left overseas.
After less than a month in the US he has also beaten the SEA Games 100m qualifying time of 10.43. So far he is the only Malaysian sprinter to have qualified for both the 100 and 200m in the 2019 SEA Games to be held in the Philippines in December.