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'He had that spark': Mentor, badminton association on what made Loh Kean Yew a world champ

SINGAPORE — When Loh Kean Yew first visited Singapore in 2007 to help his older brother in a trial to enter the Badminton Academy of the Singapore Sports School, it took only 10 minutes for the academy’s general manager Desmond Tan to notice the younger sibling. 

'He had that spark': Mentor, badminton association on what made Loh Kean Yew a world champ
Loh Kean Yew pictured in 2010 at the age of 13 with Singapore Sports School Badminton Academy general manager Desmond Tan. Loh was crowned men's badminton world champion on Dec 19, 2021.
  • Loh Kean Yew became the first Singaporean to win the Badminton World Championship men's singles title on Dec 19
  • Scouted at a young age, Loh did not have it easy at first, as he was homesick and unfamiliar with Singapore
  • He had since gained confidence with support from the Badminton Association, coaches and the Singapore Sports School 
  • But it is his passion for the sport and unwavering desire to succeed that pushed him to the top, his former general manager said

SINGAPORE — When Loh Kean Yew first visited Singapore in 2007 to help his older brother in a trial to enter the Badminton Academy of the Singapore Sports School, it took only 10 minutes for the academy’s general manager Desmond Tan to notice the younger sibling. 

“That short warm-up session with his older brother actually caught my eye,” he said. “It was obvious that he has innate talent in badminton… he had that spark.” 

Loh had not gone for the trial himself, being only 10 years old at that time and not yet eligible to enter the Singapore Sports School. He had accompanied his brother Kean Hean, then aged 12 and now also a national shuttler, merely to help him warm up. 

When Loh himself returned to Singapore Sports School for his own trial two years later in 2009 at the age of 12, he was “outstanding” during the trials and was immediately accepted into the programme, Mr Tan recounted.

Mr Tan — who was Loh’s manager when he was at the school, while Loh had his own coach —remembered that Loh did not enjoy his time at the school at first.

The boy then had come to Singapore from Penang in Malaysia where his family still lives and he was putting up at the accommodation in the school while his parents remained in George Town.

"He was quite homesick and he didn’t have many friends and family with him," Mr Tan said. "It can get very lonely, especially for the foreign students, and he kept to himself a lot." 

However, Loh "exhibited a lot of grit and remained very grounded" and was eventually able to bond with his teammates, who in turn "helped him to immerse into the school and academy culture".

THE PREPARATION BEHIND THE SCENES

Fast forward 12 years, and Loh, now aged 24 and a Singapore citizen, became the first Singaporean to win the Badminton World Championship men's singles title on Sunday (Dec 19).

The world number 22 beat India’s Srikanth Kidambi 21-15, 22-20 in the men’s singles final in Huelva, Spain to cap off a fairytale run.

Unseeded in the tournament, Loh stunned the likes of world number one Viktor Axelsen and world number three Anders Antonsen en route to taking the crown.

What might seem to some people as an unexpectedly strong showing really came after years of preparation and support, for which Loh had expressed his gratitude. 

He wrote in a social media post on Monday about his victory: “Singapore Badminton Association, Singapore Sports Institute, (sports brand) Li-ning, my coaches, teammates and training partners, physios and the sports medicine and science team, my family, friends and supporters — thank you for believing in me and for being there for me.” 

On Monday evening Singapore time, Loh was on a flight back from Spain to Singapore with his national singles coach Kelvin Ho.

Mr Ho, 31, represented Singapore at the Southeast Asian Games in 2009.

Responding to queries from TODAY, Mr Martin Andrew, technical director at the Singapore Badminton Association (SBA), said that Loh has been receiving good support in various areas of sports science and sports medicine. 

For instance, SBA has been using biomechanics with match tagging — where a timeline of all the events important in a match is created — to help players and coaches learn more about a player’s styles and areas for development and to have a greater level of analysis of opponents. 

“This isn’t just for this tournament,” Mr Andrew said. “The support has been in place for a while and fully embraced by Kean Yew… (He) embraces the challenges set and thrives on delivering, especially when people don’t expect it.” 

After his successful trial, Loh moved to Singapore and enrolled into the Badminton Academy at the Singapore Sports School's four-year programme in 2010 at the age of 13, under a scholarship offered by the school. 

This arrangement helped him to train more regularly than those in the mainstream school system. 

The academy was started alongside the Singapore Sports School when it was opened in 2004, and it allowed student-athletes to train twice a day while managing their academic life, instead of the usual once-a-day routine at mainstream schools. 

Mr Tan from the Singapore Sports School said: “Why we want to train two sessions (a day) is because we want to keep pace with our counterparts in Southeast Asia. We are in a race where we want to be world beaters, and if the best in the region are doing this, we also have to follow… this is what it takes.” 

After Loh graduated from the Singapore Sports School, he enrolled into Republic Polytechnic but left after his first year to pursue badminton professionally. He completed his National Service from 2016 to 2018.

He had notably defeated former top seed Lin Dan in 2019 during the finals of the Princess Sirivannavari Thailand Masters in Bangkok, and won the Hylo Open title in Germany this year before his victory at the world championships. 

Mr Tan said that despite Loh’s meteoric rise and achievements, there are still improvements that can be made to the badminton programme at the Singapore Sports School.

For instance, there are constantly new findings in sports science that the academy can tap, and more can be done in helping athletes transit out of the school and into the national team. 

“I don’t think we have reached the peak although we have a world champion,” Mr Tan said.

“We cannot rest on our laurels at this point in time… we need to continue to work with SBA, with sports scientists and the coaches as well and see how we can fine-tune the programme to continue this journey.” 

NEVER CONTENTED, ALWAYS IMPROVING 

Notwithstanding the support he had received, Loh himself had the innate desire to succeed, something that surpassed mere talent, Mr Tan said. 

For instance, when coaches gave him feedback on a certain technique or aspect of his game, Loh would “go the extra mile” to work on it. 

“At every training session, he will remember the words of the coach… after the training session he will put in that 10 to 15 minutes more just to focus on the (weak) area,” he said.

“He not only asks for feedback, but he puts it into action, and that is his strength.” 

It did not hurt either that Loh was “always happy” when he was playing badminton. 

“He really loves badminton and it puts a smile on his face,” Mr Tan said. “It is such a delight when he comes for training.” 

His positive energy and motivation for the sport eventually rubbed off on his teammates as well. 

“After training, everybody is so tired, but he still needs someone to (spar with him) to improve,” he said.

“And because he does this, the other teammates are looking at him, and they will also try to follow in his footsteps… he pushes the whole team.” 

Mr Tan recalled an instance when Loh was about to compete with Chinese two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan in 2019.

Even in the midst of that pressure, Loh took the time to send a motivational text message to Mr Tan, which he asked to be shared with the national badminton youth squad. 

“He was trying to instil belief in the national (youth) players that Singapore can do it and we can be world beaters,” he said. “He not only wants to motivate himself, but he wants to bring positive energy to everybody.  

His message carried more weight after that, Mr Tan added, because Loh went on to defeat the Chinese great. 

THE MOMENT HE WON

Few were happier than Mr Tan, who mentored Loh after he had graduated from the Singapore Sports School, when the young champion crouched on the ground on Sunday with his hands on his head in disbelief after realising that he had won the championship. 

“I cannot describe the feeling, it was like jubilation, relief, it’s really everything,” Mr Tan said.  “When he won, it was as if I won the match as well.” 

Mr Andrew from SBA said: “Kean Yew has done Singapore very proud by winning the World Championships and the association is incredibly proud of his win, too.

“It wasn't expected, but over the recent weeks, Kean Yew had been performing at a high level, gaining wins over all of the top four in the world... and beating so many players ranked above him.” 

As for what the future holds, Mr Andrew said that Loh will be travelling with world number one Axelsen and other training partners to Dubai before playing badminton tournaments in India in January. 

He will later return to Singapore to prepare for more international events in March. 

“After that, we are looking at where the plans are and will be working out what opportunities there are for additional training opportunities while maintaining Singapore as the base and continuing to develop his physical and mental areas,” Mr Andrew said. 

Loh also aims to do his best at the three major games in 2022: The Southeast Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. 

“He was already targeting medals and top performances in these championships,” Mr Andrew added. 

“He will now be challenged as a marked man by the top players, who will be doing even more homework on him, so we will work to stay in front of the game.” 

As to how Loh’s victory will have an impact on badminton here, Mr Tan said it is “affirmation” that Singapore Sports School's badminton programme is on “the right track” to enable athletes to compete with the best in the world. 

“We want teenagers and badminton talents to step forward and have the belief that not only Kean Yew can do it, but they can do it, and the system allows them to be world beaters.” 

He really loves badminton and it puts a smile on his face. It is such a delight when he comes for training.
Loh Kean Yew's former manager Desmond Tan

Related topics

badminton Singapore Badminton Association Loh Kean Yew Singapore Sports School athlete Sports

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