Loh Kean Yew, badminton world champion and currently, the nation's darling, arrived back home in Singapore on Dec. 21 to much fanfare.
He was greeted with a water salute upon touchdown at Changi Airport, and his distant appearance at one end of the Arrival Hall of Terminal 1 was heralded by hushed whispers from the media and crowd of passers-by in Jewel Changi Airport that had gathered to welcome him home.
As Loh and his entourage, which includes national singles coach Kelvin Ho and physiotherapist Ho Jia Ying — all dressed in bright red national colours — advanced towards the crowd, the whispers evolved to small cheers and a round of hearty applause for the returning hero.
And it seems that despite countless interviews and standing next to "giants" on the podium for all the world to see, Loh still fumbles endearingly in front of the cameras.
He stood there at a slight loss as to what to say, before giving a brief but sincere "thank you", adding that he is happy to be back, sheepishly bowing and shaking hands with Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong.
Not resting on his laurels
On Dec. 19, Loh made history as the first ever Singaporean to clinch the gold medal at the BWF World Championships in Huelva, Spain.
He stormed through matches with world No. 1 Viktor Axelsen, world No. 3 Anders Antonsen and previously world No. 14 Srikanth Kidambi to defeat the latter 21-15 and 22-20.
In a post-match interview fresh from his victory, Loh sported a wide toothy grin, stating that he is "super, super happy", and proceeded to thank and express his gratitude for his sponsors, supporters, friends and family.
The Penang-born Loh's boyish good looks, outstanding talent on the court and humble attitude have since won over Singaporeans.
During a press conference Mothership attended right after his return, Loh relishes in his historic accomplishment.
"I'm actually quite satisfied and happy with my achievements so far, these past few months, it's been quite a good run."
And it truly has, as aside from the three seeded players mentioned above, Loh has also previously beaten world No. 2 Kento Momota at the Indonesia Open and world No. 4 Chou Tien Chen at the Hylo Open in November.
The young man isn't resting on his laurels however.
For him, "there's still a long way to go". Loh modestly admits that he still needs to be more consistent in his playing, and his confidence and "how I handle pressure".
Used to be the underdog
He does however, recognise how he has transformed into a deadly opponent for other players, going so far as to describe himself as an underdog in the past.
"It's just a new beginning for me because I've been the underdog, but now I'm gonna be one of those that people want to beat, like very badly."
Loh is currently world No. 15, and to maintain this form in the future is one of his biggest challenges, something which requires a change in mindset.
"This is a big challenge because I can only know how I handle this [new mindset] during the competition itself."
This is why following this short end-of-year break, Loh will travel once again to Dubai to train with Olympic champion Axelsen in January.
He had previously had a one-month training stint with the Dane in September, something which many have credited to contributing to Loh's meteoric rise to champion.
It is perhaps this mentorship, along with years of hard work, that allowed Loh to persevere despite the pain of an ankle injury during the BWF.
The injury to his right ankle, sustained during the quarter-finals, left him in a wheelchair a day before his match with Kidambi.
Loh shares that currently, his ankle is feeling much better, and he has a doctor's appointment scheduled for Dec. 22.
Time to rest
Behind the camera flashes and the shine of the gold medal, Loh is still like any other young man, tired after giving his best, and very well succeeding.
When asked what he plans to do the next day, Loh's answers simply, with a chuckle: "Eat and sleep."
What about the following days?
Eat and sleep as well.
"I miss my bed and pillow," he candidly shares. After all, one can only imagine how exhausted he must be to attend to reporters and cameras immediately upon touching down.
He is also looking forward to eating good food, something he has missed during his tours.
You deserve the rest, Kean Yew.
Watch more about Loh's return here.
Follow and listen to our podcast here
Top photo by Ashley Tan