The Malaysian athlete is set to make her first appearance at the Olympic Games and hopes to inspire future generations of gymnasts to take up the sport.
It’s been 17 years since a Malaysian gymnast has qualified for the Olympic Games but now Farah Ann Abdul Hadi has broken that Olympic drought and will be the third gymnast from the country to take the centre stage at a Games, following in the footsteps of fellow countrymen Au Lin Yen (Sydney 2000) and Ng Shu Wai (Athens 2004).
Abdul Hadi has obtained her qualifcation at the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany – and whilst only placing 59th overall – and qualified 16/20 for the Individual slot qualification for the Olympic Games.
As the first and only gymnast from Malaysia to secure berth for Tokyo 2020, the gymnast hopes that it will also herald greater things for Team Malaysia.
“I'm just very grateful and very, very thankful to be that first gymnast [to qualify], but I hope that I’m not the last,” Abdul Hadi told Tokyo 2020.
“Being able to put Malaysia on the map for gymnastics is something that I've always wanted to do. I hope that with my qualification and then in the future, that more gymnasts from Malaysia qualify for the Olympics and move further than I have and make greater strides for gymnastics for Malaysia,” the 26-year-old athlete said.
Blessing in disguise
Abdul Hadi is currently training at Malaysia’s National Training Centre for Sports in Kuala Lumpur in preparation for her Olympic debut.
“I am quarantine team-based training, so I live here in the compound. We have a dormitory style area, so I sleep, eat, train, do my recovery, rehab and physio in the same spot,” Abdul Hadi said.
The gymnast was also able to take advantage of the postponement of the Games to recuperate from injuries accumulated during her long career.
“I was able to take a little bit of rest and do my physiotherapy recovery and rehab. And now my shoulders are doing a lot better and I'm able to train without pain and to be able to focus on my training a lot more.”
Abduld Hadi is set to make her first appearance at a Games, but in reality it should have been her second Games if it weren’t for a foot injury which affected her beam routine at an Olympic trial for Rio 2016, five years ago to be exact.
“I would cry in my room and feel very upset because I couldn't bring myself to forgive the performance that I gave [at the Olympic trials for Rio],” Abdul Hadi reminisced.
Looking back at that painful experience for Rio, Abdul Hadi feels it had been a "blessing in disguise" now that she has qualified for Tokyo 2020.
“Now, I think back about it because I believe that if I had qualified for the [Rio] Olympics, I don't know if I would have stayed as long as I have and try to qualify for Tokyo. And I think that sometimes these things work themselves out."
"It was a blessing in disguise for me to continue training and continue competing.”
In for the long haul
The 26-year-old has been a gymnast for more than 20 years. She started when she was 3-years-old and and by the time she was 7 had been training six days a week, upgrading to almost two sessions a day until age 10 when she started representing Malaysia.
As young as she was then, Abdul Hadi already showed dedication to her craft and the kind of commitment that define future Olympians, which she was destined to be.
"I truly, truly enjoyed competing for my state as long first and then for Malaysia when I was ten. It was very exciting for me to be able to train new skills and to be able to practise gymnastics and to compete for my country. And I very much enjoyed how gymnastics was."
By 2010, she competed in her first Games at the New Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games and then placed 11th in the all-around finals in the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Her career trajectory had been solidified even further when she won gold in the team’s event and floor finals in the 2015 Southeast Asian Games, followed by a silver in the Individual Final including bronze in vault, balance beam and uneven bars, winning a total of six medals overall. In 2016, she won a silver medal at the World Cup in Slovenia.
In 2019, she recorded multiple accomplishments after securing her Tokyo 2020 qualification in the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in October that year then also winning three gold medals at the 2019 SEA Games including a first gold medal in the individual all-around event, and rounded it up with being named as Female Athlete of the Year by the Olympic Council of Malaysia.
However, there is still one thing to add to her illustrious career: to compete in her first Olympic Games.
At 27-years-of age come Games time, Abdul Hadi recognises that she will be competing as a much older gymnast than the normal convention, but she is as fearless as ever and knows she needs to have a different mindset when she takes that stage in Tokyo 2020.
“I'll be turning 27 [years-old] by the time I compete in Tokyo 2020 in terms of mindset and training, because I am an older gymnast, I am focussing more on the quality of my training sessions and also making sure that my body and mind are healthy,” she said.
“I think as an older gymnast that I'm very lucky to have coaches who understand my training styles and understand me and my body and how I am able to train. So because most of my muscle memory is there, it's now very important to make sure that I am both healthy in mind and body and that my training sessions are obviously not as long as when I was 15,” she explained.
2015 Getty Images
An inspirational athlete
A trailblazer for the sport in Malaysia, Abdul Hadi has been a role model for young girls. In fact, a Barbie doll had been made in her likeness as tribute to her accomplishments in gymnastics and for her helping inspire girls to follow in her footsteps and reach for their dreams.
And it is an important role that Abdul Hadi does not take lightly.
“I try to strive to inspire other people and other kids to reach for their dreams, to work hard and to know that anything is possible if they put their minds to it and they believe in themselves and their dreams.”
“And I'm so happy to continue to do the very best that I can to be a great role model for kids out there, and especially for women in sports and women in general to know that we are strong and beautiful and that we can achieve what we want if you put our minds to it.”
Abdul Hadi also takes the time to be advocate against cyberbullying in other media interviews after being a target of negative comments at the height of her career after representing Malaysia in the 2015 SEA Games.
She shared how she was able to pull through after that dark period in her life.
“I think that the important lesson that I found during that time was that I'm very lucky to have such a strong back from my family and friends and team-mates. I realised that all the people that mattered to me, my family, my friends, they supported me. And those are the words and advice that I took from this experience. And that's how I realised that, you know, yes, people can say mean things online, they usually never see them in front of your face. And the people who matter will always support you no matter what.”
“I remember my coach saying that if you want to succeed, there will always be people who want to bring you down or will try to not make not make you succeed.”
All for Malaysia
With Abdul Hadi getting ready for the performance of her life at Tokyo 2020, she is also laying the groundwork so to speak for future gymnasts from the country with gymnastics.
"I hope that in general that Malaysia will be a very strong force in the Asia realm and also in the world realm in the future."
“It has increased in popularity in Malaysia, but I hope that more athletes and more kids see this as something that they want to join, even if it's not to be a professional athlete, but to have fun and enjoy the sport because for me, I think that it really does build your confidence, your strength. It builds teamwork, it builds your self-esteem."
Whilst thinking of her country’s future in gymnastics, Abdul Hadi is equally excited to be on that Olympic stage along with the world's best athletes.
"The Olympic Games is important to me because I remember as a kid that the Olympic Games was the biggest games in the world."
"[And] on the Olympic stage, because everyone there is basically the best in the world, it will be amazing to be able to compete with everyone there."
And she's already looking at performing in her favourite events.
"The floor is my best, I think. I love floor [routines] the best because I love to express myself and I feel that floor really allows me to express myself and able to show how much I love competing."
"I do love the uneven bars as well. I love it because I think it's one of the highest difficulty events and I get to show really big skills.
"And the vault is dynamic - the vault is the easiest for me to compete because it's a one go and you go all out in five seconds and you try to do the best that you can and then it's over. So it's a very it's a rush of adrenaline."
And even though she had that experience in Rio, she still loves to perform in the beam.
"I love doing the beam, but beam is very tricky because I always say that the beam knows me that day or it doesn't. The beam - we have a very strong, loving relationship. I do enjoy doing the beam."
As she plans to give her all for Tokyo 2020, she stops short of saying she wants to win a medal instead she is setting her sights to qualify for the individual all-around final.
“For me, my aim at Tokyo 2020 is just to do my very best and to give my best all around performance. I'm looking forward to just to do my very best and compete with everyone there and to be able to show my best performance when I'm there."
"It is just such an amazing opportunity and I hope that this is a stepping stone for all the gymnasts that will come after me to know that they can do it and that nothing can stand in their way if they put their mind to it and they work hard for it."
With the whole of Malaysia cheering for her, this gymnast has already won more than an Olympic crown.