KUCHING: 2020 is going to be a year of reckoning for Sarawak’s top athletes.
Pandelela Rinong is set for her fourth and Welson Sim his second Olympic Games.
For many state athletes, however, the Johor Sukma will provide the platform for some to emerge as rising stars.
2020 is destined to be a historic year in sports. The Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo, Japan for the second time.
It was 56 years ago that Malaysia first competed as a nation in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Legendary hurdler Bala Ditta created history as Sarawak’s first Olympian.
Diving queen Pandelela had a quiet year in 2019 mostly spent trying to recover from past injuries. The only highlight was in July when she partnered Leong Mun Yee to snatch the 10m synchronised platform silver at the World Aquatic Championships, earning qualification for Tokyo 2020.
It has not been rosy for national divers since long-time China coach Yang Zhuliang left.
Yang was instrumental in guiding Pandelela to her bronze medal in the 2012 London Games and then the silver in the 2016 Rio Games.
If Sarawak’s only Olympic medallist can clinch a third medal in Tokyo she will share with shuttler Lee Chong Wei (men’s singles runner-up in 2008, 2012 and 2016) the honour as Malaysia’s most bemedalled Olympians.
2019 started brightly for swimmer Welson Sim only to end on a dismal note.
In the early part of the season he created waves by beating two former Olympic medallists in Australia.
Concerns were raised, however, when he did not perform to par at the World Championships by mid year.
Then at the SEA Games in the Philippines at the end of the year he lost in the two events that he had won in the 2017 Games. Observers have remarked that Malaysia’s top swimmer may have spread himself too thin in low-level competitions rather than peak for major events.
Welson, who currently holds national records from the 100 to 800m freestyle, was the only Malaysian swimmer to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games by merit.
The challenge for him now is not only to qualify but to advance beyond the first round heats for Tokyo 2020.
Sabah backstroke legend Alex Lim is the only Malaysian swimmer to date to have qualified as far as the semi-finals when he competed in the 2004 Olympiad.
In contrast to Welson 2019 was a breakthrough year for para athlete Bonnie Bunyau Gustin.
The pint-size debutant stunned the field of defending and former champions at the World Para Powerlifting Championships in July.
The world junior record holder (below 65kg weight category) first won the junior event, then bench pressed 207kg to carry off the senior title as well.
If he can find the midas touch again in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympiad he will become Sarawak’s first Paralympiad gold medalist.
Meanwhile, the challenge facing all state para athletes in 2020 is to extend Sarawak’s winning streak as Para Sukma overall champions since the inaugural games in 1994.
2020 also marks exactly 30 years since Sarawak first lifted the Sukma overall title in 1990.
The state went on to deliver a hat-trick by repeating as champions in 1992 and 1994. But the coveted title has eluded Sarawak ever since.
Sarawak finished third overall in the 2014 Perlis Sukma, second in the 2016 Sarawak Sukma and fourth in the 2018 Perak Sukma.