BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN –  Nine athletes representing Brunei at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi returned home Friday night with a haul of one gold, two silver and four bronze medals.

Despite being the games’ smallest contingent, the athletes managed to snag seven medals in athletics and dance sport, competing among 7,000 participants from 170 countries.

The star of the Brunei team was 18-year-old Muhd Haziman Azrul Muhd Nuruddin, who won a gold medal in the 200m sprint.

“When I first met him almost five years ago, I saw the talent and all the potential he had,” said head coach, Hj Suhaili Mohammad Yussof. “Even when I was training with him I never would have expected that we would share this moment right here, returning home from the World Games in Abu Dhabi with a gold medal.”

Hj Suhaili and Azrul were also featured on the wildly popular photoblog, Humans of New York (HONY), with their post garnering over 135,000 likes on Instagram.

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“I first met him when he was thirteen years old. He lives in one of the most remote regions of Brunei. You can only get there by river. There’s no running water, no electricity, no utilities. Certainly no special education facilities. He came alone to our city looking for assistance. When I first met him, his trousers were completely torn. He was so small for his age. I’m a special education teacher, so I said to myself: ‘I’m going to help this boy.’ He lived with me for four years. It was the only way he could get training. I coached him on the Special Olympics soccer team. I tried to give him structure. I told him: take a bath every day, go to sleep early, always go to school. The advice had to be continuous because he forgets very easily. But I did everything for him. He became like my son. But he never called me ‘father.’ Always ‘teacher.’ And I never forced him to stay. He’d leave home for a few nights at a time, but he’d always come back. I was really hoping he’d live with me until he got a job. It’s dangerous for him to be on his own because he needs guidance. His family has many bad habits. But last October he turned eighteen, and he chose to go home. He reaches out to me sometimes when his family runs out of food. Or when he needs money. He knows that I can never say ‘no.’ At first it was very difficult. I worried nonstop. I’d always ask his friends: ‘Where is Azril now?’ But I have to accept I’ve done all I can. He has become an adult. When we return from the games, I think it’s time for me to let go.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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Told from the perspective of Hj Suhaili, the post details the relationship between himself and Azrul, who left his home in Sukang — Brunei’s most remote settlement —  after primary school because there was no special needs education.

In his interview with HONY, the coach said Azrul came from a home that had “no running water, no electricity, no utilities”.

The boy then moved to Kuala Belait to live with his aunt so he could attend the Perdana Wazir Secondary School, where he took a pre-vocational program due to his learning disability.

“He was living with his aunt at that point. But once we saw his talent, I convinced his family to let him stay with me to better facilitate his training. Since then, I have helped provide some structure in his life,” Hj Suhaili told The Scoop.

The coach often acts a voice for his mentee, speaking on his behalf when the boy is too shy or overwhelmed.

Since turning 18, Azrul no longer lives with Hj Suhaili, choosing to stay with his family, who have since moved to Seria.

But athlete and coach still keep in touch for advice and counsel, with the pair currently setting their sights on representing Brunei in the Paralympics.

Athletes reunite with friends and family after competing in the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

Vice President of Special Olympics Brunei Darussalam (SOBD), Wati Hj Bujang, said she was proud their athletes were able to snatch seven medals despite being the smallest contingent at the games.

“We have participated in four Special Olympics world games, and in the previous games, the smallest contingent would still be at least 10 athletes,” said Wati. “Now, even with just nine athletes, we still managed to get the medals that we hoped for.”

Among the other medalists were Dk Nur Amal Rashidah Pg Abd Rahman, who won silver in the women’s 200m sprint; Hizam Budiman Anak Kasin, who won silver in men’s shot put and bronze in men’s 200m sprint; Amal Farwizah Hj Ibrahim who won bronze in women’s shot put; Nurhafizatul Irdina Saini, who won bronze in women’s 200m sprint; and the Brunei MIB Team who won the bronze medal in the dance sport category.

The Brunei contingent to the 2019 Special Olympics in Abdu Dhabi pose for a group photo with their families upon arrival at Brunei International Airport on March 22, 2019. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

Wati explained that SOBD sent a smaller team this year due to limited finances — all of the athletes are funded by sponsors or donations to the organisation.

She said they were only able to conduct a few fundraising activities because their volunteers were overwhelmed with other commitments.

“It is sometimes difficult for us to find companies that would sponsor us, so we welcome any individuals or companies would like to reach out and aid us in raising funds, because it truly is one of the biggest challenges for us”.