It is hard to believe the scrawny boy who was enjoying his fried chicken in a fast food joint would go on to capture the nation’s heart.
But that is just what retired badminton hero Datuk Lee Chong Wei did in a glittering 19-year career which saw him rule badminton as its No. 1 ranked player for 348 weeks.
Flashback to Kota Kinabalu, Sept 14, 2002. Lee had just lost the Malaysia Games men’s singles final to another future world No 1 Hafiz Hashim.
Lee consoled himself by indulging in fried chicken but even as he was having his meal, Hafiz’s coach Datuk Misbun Sidek commented: “Watch out for this boy. He will go on to be a great champion.”
How prophetic those words were to become as Lee soon came under the tutelage of Misbun and together they scaled great heights.
Along the way, other coaches such as Datuk Tey Seu Bock and Hendrawan helped guide Lee to the top of the game but sadly never to the gold medal at either the Olympics or World Championships.
Those near losses will haunt Lee for the rest of his days but the fans still loved him as he always gave his best and was never one to shirk his responsibility.
While many now remember him as Malaysia’s greatest badminton champion, not many recollect there was nearly no Lee Chong Wei.
Born in Bagan Serai, Perak, but growing up in Penang, Lee was a late bloomer.
In Penang, he came under the tutelage of badminton guru Teh Peng Huat who helped refine his skills. Despite that, Lee wasn’t chosen for the national back-up squad until he was 17, and that too was only because then coaching director Morten Frost insisted on giving him a second chance.
Once given a reprieve, Lee grabbed it with both hands. Always a hard worker, he pushed himself and his coaches to the limit.
Misbun is known as a hard taskmaster – some would even say a slave driver – but even he was surprised at how driven Lee was.
One Monday morning, a few years after they had started working together, Lee walked up to Misbun and said: “Coach, today I nak extra training. Semalam I pergi birthday party and terlebih celebrate.” (Coach I need to have extra training as I attended a birthday party yesterday and over celebrated).
Any other player would have probably just kept quiet, but not Lee.
Another example of how he was never satisfied was him returning to training early even though those who had competed in major championships were given extra time off to recover.
This happened even after he won his silver medals at the Olympics and World Championships. He was always aiming for more, striving to be better.
But not everyone adored Lee.
Some members of the media fraternity labelled him arrogant as it wasn’t always easy to get quotes from him outside of the designated press conferences.
And he hardly ever entertained phone interviews unless he knew the reporter personally.
One reason for his reluctance to speak to the media was due to the number of misquotes and some journalists’ habit of adding words to his quotes.
Unlike yesterday when he spoke mostly in English while announcing his retirement, Lee had always struggled to express himself. As such, he preferred to do his talking on the court.
But once you got to know Lee, you will know he is far from arrogant.
When he broke down in tears yesterday, it was not when he was thanking the coaches, sponsors, officials or the fans.
Rather it was when he was paying tribute to the “invisible” people – the support staff of the National Sports Institute and National Sports Council – the physiotherapists, the trainers, masseurs and psychologists.
People behind the scenes who made him what he is today and he named them one by one. Most had worked with Lee for nearly his whole career. They had kept him in tip-top condition throughout his 19 years in the national team.
Lee’s career had its fair share of lows.
Losing all those major finals were bitter pills but his eight-month doping ban could have ruined a lesser mortal. It happened when he tested positive for dexamethasone after urine samples were taken during the 2014 World Championships.
Dexamethasone is not a performance-enhancing drug but a commonly-administered anti-inflammatory corticosteroid that is not illegal when used off-season for injury rehabilitation but deemed illegal if discovered in an athlete’s body during competition. If he had signed the Therapeutic Use Exemptions form, he would not have been banned.
Lee fought the case and was handed an eight-month suspension instead of a two-year ban as the Badminton World Federation found Lee had been “negligent”, but ruled that the degree of negligence was “rather light”.
“The panel is convinced this is not a case of doping with intent to cheat,” it said in a statement explaining the “light” punishment.
Like a true champion, he came back from No 180 in the world on June 18, 2015, to regain top spot on June 9, 2016. Amazingly, he won a silver medal at the 2015 World Championships on August 16, two-and-a-half months after his suspension ended.
When he was diagnosed with nose cancer last year he was devastated but came back to beat it.
His on-going battle to regain full fitness is one of the reasons he has decided to call time on his career as his doctor said his body could no longer take the high-intensity training.
It is time to close the chapter on Lee Chong Wei’s career but he will never be forgotten.
Perhaps it’s time for him to enjoy another plate of fried chicken. Enjoy your retirement champ.