At 27, Md Fakhri Ismail is the national record holder for 100m with his time of 10.59s during the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore. His success on the track also brings in other opportunities — Md Fakhri is one of Brunei’s most marketable athletes, clinching the spot as a local ambassador for international sports brand Under Armour.
What many may not know is that he started out as a footballer. However, he was dropped from the national football team a week before the team was due to fly off to compete in the 2011 SEA Games. Determined to prove himself, he decided to take his speed and agility on to a different field by taking part in the 2012 Inter-Ministry Sports Festival where he beat national runners. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Scoop sits down with Brunei’s national sprinter to talk about his proudest achievements, struggles and future plans.
How did you switch from a footballer to becoming a national sprinter? Was the transition easy for you?
Md Fakhri: In 2011, I was selected to be part of the under-23 national football team for SEA Games in Indonesia. But unfortunately, a week before flying to Indonesia I was dropped.
[The transition happened because of] the 2012 Inter-Ministry Sports Festival where I competed in the 100m and 200m. With no training at all, I beat [other] national runners. There was a national track and field team coach at the competition and he approached me to train [with the national team].
You’ve competed regionally and internationally, what do you think are the most memorable moments in your career?
Md Fakhri: My best moment was in 2015 when I competed in the World Athletics Championships in Beijing. I was the first Bruneian to qualify for the 100m heats at the world meet [finishing third with a time of 10.73s in the preliminary round].
After qualifying for the next round, I raced in the same heat with Usain Bolt. How did it feel? The feeling was great, it was different, because all of the crowd’s attention was on Bolt. He’s my idol because he’s the fastest man in the world. Bolt decided to retire when he’s still on top. He’s still young [29 years old] but at least I got to race with him once.
I took a photo with him at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 and competing with many world class athletes, I can see how big the difference is in the performance level compared to our athletes.
You talked about the differences between world class athletes and our local athletes. What do you mean by that?
Md Fakhri: In Brunei, [our athletes] still lag behind even at the ASEAN level. We lack [knowledge in] sports science and biomechanics. The difference is due to training. Their training is more advanced, they take into account the importance of nutrition and I can see how disciplined they are in training.
The facilities that we have are also limited. We do have successful athletes, such as our Wushu team but they do a lot of training camps in China because they have good facilities there.
From my experience attending a one-month training camp in Japan in 2017, I can see the difference in terms of training. However, my coach said one-month won’t be able to change anything. You must at train [at the camp] for at least six months to one year to get results.
So going forward, what is your next goal?
Md Fakhri: My next goal for now is to continue running for maybe the next two to three years. Next, I want to be a coach, maybe as an assistant coach first and continue my interest in track and field.
For now, my focus is on the Asian Games this August in Jakarta. After that, in 2019, is the SEA Games in Philippines. If I am at peak performance there, InsyaAllah, hopefully I will be nominated for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. That’s the target, but that’s only if I perform. If I don’t perform well, then I will start thinking about whether to continue running or pursue coaching.
Are there times when you feel like giving up? How do you cope with the pressure?
Md Fakhri: Because this is my passion, there are a lot of sacrifices I have to make.
If [there was ever a moment where I felt like quitting], I would think that I’ve already reached too far to stop. However, it can feel at times like there’s not enough time to juggle work and training.
I work in the government sector, so my training starts after work. I train six days a week for at least two and a half hours each day. Three months before a competition, I would be given the permission from my employer to train full-day. In the morning, I work out in the gym and in the afternoon my training is focused on the track.
In sprinting, warm ups and stretching are important, because not doing so can lead to injuries. I always get hamstring injuries and that is a struggle for me. As the competition date draws closer, the training will be more intense and if I don’t warm up properly, it can lead to injuries.
To cope with the pressure, I always remember those who have always been there to support me — my parents, family and friends. When we compete outside, we must also think of all the Bruneians who support us. We must do our best for our supporters.
It’s also important to train with other like-minded athletes. As sprinting is a solo sport, you will not know your limit and there’s no one else to push you to your limit. That is why training partners is important.
What advice do you have for those aspiring to be national athletes?
Md Fakhri: Brunei has many sports talents but they are sometimes shy and afraid to try. There are many who come up to me and ask [how to join training] but they are shy.
Don’t be shy, train and keep trying. As an athlete, you also need to manage your time well with your studies. This is because in Brunei, it is not yet possible to be a full-time athlete, so doing well in your studies is important.
Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.
WATCH: Md Fakri competes against Usain Bolt in a 100m heat during the IAAF Championships 2015 in Beijing.