This feature is part of Yahoo News Singapore's series of previews ahead of the SEA Games, which will be held from 12 to 23 May in Hanoi.
SINGAPORE — Loh Kean Yew remembers preparing for his first tournament after his Badminton World Championships victory last December.
Not wanting to pile too much pressure on himself to repeat that extraordinary triumph, he continued to psyche himself up as an underdog with nothing to lose.
It didn't work.
"It's a fact that I'm a world champ, and other shuttlers know that and they will analyse my game. And once they do, it's not easy to play like an underdog anymore," the 24-year-old told Yahoo News Singapore as he sat down for an interview ahead of this month's SEA Games in Hanoi.
"I needed to learn how to improvise and be better than my previous game. Now, I try to face head-on and acknowledge that I'm the world champ, and I must play with this pressure."
Challenge of carrying the 'world champion' tag
It was indeed a sobering realisation of the consequences of creating one of the greatest sporting feats by a Singaporean athlete.
Buoyed by his encouraging form after the Tokyo Olympics, Loh entered the World Championships in Huelva, Spain, as an unfancied outside bet - and left as an unlikely world-beater, sweeping through the men's singles competition and handing defeats to the likes of world No.1 Viktor Axelsen and world No.3 Anders Antonsen.
In becoming Singapore's first badminton world champion, he had thrilled the city-state with his otherworldly reflexes and steely determination to recover from any deficit. Yet, there were also some detractors who pointed out that he had benefited from the absences of top shuttlers from China and Indonesia - powerhouse nations which had pulled out of the World Championships due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And while he had entered the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time in February, Loh acknowledged that he has had an up-and-down season so far this year.
There were bright spots such as his runner-up showing at the India Open and helping the men's national team qualify for the prestigious Thomas Cup finals, but there were also first-round exits amid the strong fields at the German Open and All-England Championships.
As Loh carries the world champion tag into a busy stretch of the year - with the Thomas Cup, SEA Games, Commonwealth Games, and a slew of regional Opens coming up in the next five months - he knows that, with all eyes on him, he has to be even better than his world-conquering performances last year.
"It's been rocky, but I'm still trying, and I feel I've handled myself better with each tournament," he said.
"Sports is like that, we always try to be better. When other people try to beat me, I need to think of ways to improvise and be better than what I was before, so that I can beat them. That's the beauty of sports."
Support figures as he tries to cope with fame
Even as Loh tries to fend off rivals who want to able to beat a reigning world champion. he has to also cope with newfound fame following his spectacular feat.
Before he sat down for this interview, he spent nearly two hours with VIPs at a Singapore Badminton Association sponsor's event at the OCBC Arena, laughing along as he played a few rounds of badminton with the overmatched guests. Many of them were eagerly posing photos with him, awestruck at being able to rub shoulders with a world champion.
Loh acknowledged that these are new commitments and responsibilities that come with being a recognisable sports figure, but he is glad that there are people around him to keep him focused on his profession.
One of them is his coach Kelvin Ho, who was recently promoted from national singles assistant coach to head coach after guiding Loh to the world title. Ho had been coaching Loh since young, even taking time off from his family to train Loh in the evenings when he was in national service.
"He's tough but realistic. He knows when to push me. A lot of the time it's because I don't dare to push too far, so that's when he would try to help me break my mental barrier," he said.
Another source of support is his family and close friends. Due to his busy touring schedule, Loh does not have much time to spend with his close-knit family and friends, but whenever he did, he is glad that they always made him feel relaxed.
"They've helped me to ease off the pressure. Whenever I'm with them, they give me a chilled and relaxed feeling, rather than always talking about 'badminton, badminton, world champs, world champs', or how to be better," Loh said.
"It's a good work-life balance."
Tough route to SEA Games success
During the interview, Loh was direct and forthcoming, answering succinctly without much meandering, not unlike a problem solver pinpointing the exact cause and immediately going about to rectify it.
When asked whether his world championships triumph came too early, too late or at the right time in his badminton career, he cracked a smile and said immediately, "Too early or too late, I'm glad that it came."
When asked whether a team or an individual gold medal at the SEA Games would mean more to him, he quickly replied, "Both medals will mean a lot to me and Singapore. I want to win both because it's been a long time since Singapore won a SEA Games gold in badminton."
Indeed, it has been 11 years since Singapore last won gold in the highly-competitive badminton competition at the Games. That happened in 2011, when Fu Mingtian clinched the women's singles gold by somehow defeating Indonesia's Adriyanti Firdasari in front of a loud and partisan Jakarta crowd - an unlikely feat similar to Loh's world triumph.
Similarly, Loh will not have an easy path towards SEA Games success, as he and his national teammates will have to contend with top shuttlers from traditionally strong nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
But, just as he tackled his interview questions head on and without hesitation, he declared that he is ready for whatever challenges may come his way.
"With this kind of pressure, if I can repeat my success again, that would make me happy," he said.
"But I always strive to be better, and I try to be as consistent as possible. I think success will come after that. When it happens, it happens."