Malaysian cycling lifts off with 'pocket rocket'
EIGHT years after carrying Malaysia's flag at the opening of the Beijing Olympics, Azizulhasni Awang finally fulfilled the dream of winning his country's first-ever track cycling medal on Tuesday.
Nicknamed the "pocket rocket" because of his small stature, he came in third in the men's keirin in Rio, earning a bronze medal for a country with little heritage in a sport dominated by Europe and Australia.
After disappointment in London and Beijing, the 28-year-old, who suffered a horrific injury in 2011 when part of a wooden track pierced his leg, finished just behind the Netherlands' Matthijs Buchli in a race won by Britain's Jason Kenny.
"It means a lot.
"We've been waiting for an Olympic cycling medal for a very long time," he said with a proud smile.
Awang came to cycling by riding mountain bikes with his brother around the fishing villages where he lived in eastern Malaysia. He took up track cycling as a 16-year-old after he was spotted racing in Kuala Lumpur.
"It was my first-ever race. I'd never trained, I'd never used a track bike," he said.
But despite being up against national cyclists, Awang won.
A coach who had been watching encouraged Awang to move to Kuala Lumpur to train. At 18, after continuing to show promise, he moved once more, this time to Australia where he continues to live.
It was a tough decision.
"I love my country but to be a professional cyclist, I had to leave my family, my friends and stay in Melbourne," he said.
Awang hopes his success on the track can help more people get into cycling in Malaysia and encourage investment in the sport.
"Track cycling is not a huge sport in Malaysia.
"We only have two velodromes - one is broken and the other one is going to be demolished," he noted.
But he said a new indoor velodrome could be finished as soon as this year.
"After we finish the new indoor velodrome, I hope I can spend time during the off-season in Kuala Lumpur."