Wednesday August 1, 2012
Malaya’s track queen
By LILIAN TAN
Olympic glory eluded her, but she still has that winning smile.
NOBODY has ever called me beautiful but people have always liked my smile.”
Today, at 70, Cheah Pek Wah still sports that same dazzling smile that made her the darling of local sports photographers in the late 1950s, when she blazed a trail of new records to make her mark as Malaya’s champion female track star.
Pek, as she likes to be called, was born in Penang, in 1942, just nine months after the Japanese invaded Malaya. After her family survived the war, her Chinese primary schoolteacher mother divorced her father, a smooth-talking dreamer who was always badgering his wife to fund his doomed business ventures. Pek, her mother and grandmother then moved to Kampung Boyan, a Malay village in Taiping, Perak, where they lived in a rented room in a house on stilts.
As she recalls, her mother was a very simple, mild-mannered woman “who did not have very much money and did not know what to do with even the little she had.”
Even so, Pek’s mother knew enough to eventually secure a small plot of land in the New Village of Pokok Assam, Taiping, on which she built their tiny, one-room wooden house – and later, another one to rent out. Excitement in the village, Pek remembers, was waiting for a durian to drop or a chicken to get run over by a car, with the prize going to whoever got to it first.
“I was a real kampung girl,” she says. “My earliest childhood memory was of running on the railway sleepers and hopping off the tracks when the train came along. I’m not even sure my mother and grandmother were even aware of what I was doing other than I was playing outside.”
That said, she credits her mother with being ambitious for her: despite not being able to speak or write English herself, she was determined to send her only daughter to an English school – so she enrolled Pek in the kindergarten at Lady Treacher Girls’ School when she turned six.
“I had an easier time than others at school. I was not the brightest but all the teachers seemed to like me. Perhaps because I smiled a lot....”
By the time she got to secondary school, Pek was also getting special attention for her athletic talent. One day, at an interschool sports event, her track performance so impressed Geoffrey Leerden – a Eurasian mathematics teacher and the athletic coach of St George’s Institution, a boys’ school – that he approached her school headmistress to also coach her.
Soon, under the supervision of Mr Geoffrey, as he was called, the diminutive 12-year-old was excelling in virtually every track and field event – long jump, high jump, short sprints, and ultimately, the event that would seal her reputation – the 80m hurdles.
Subsequently, Mr Geoffrey also took on the challenge to train up a formidable relay team for Lady Treacher. For two hours every afternoon, six months of the year, he worked with his charges, training and encouraging them.
During the athletic season, he would bundle the girls into his little Fiat and ferry them to one athletic meet after another – some of them out of town and as far as Singapore. Being the fastest of the lot, Pek was the anchor leg runner and, with teammates Lai Foong San, Lim Siew Geok, Ang Poh Goon and Ang Poh Choon (twins), Norain and Sharifah, made sure that Lady Treacher never lost any relay events. Not ever.
“Incredibly, everything Mr Geoffrey did for us, he did in his own time and for no extra money,” says Pek. “He even used his own money to buy me vitamins, starting blocks and my customised track spikes. I will never forget that.”
Incredibly, because she could be counted on to win in everything, she was entered in every event and was snagging everything from regional titles to the national championship. Eventually, however, it was decided that she should specialise in the 100m and 200m sprint and 80m hurdles.
Her favourite event, the 80m hurdles, was also the one that challenged her the most as it required an exquisite combination of speed, coordination and technique.
Although Mr Geoffrey had no athletic training himself, he worked with her to perfect her pacing and stride length so that she could clear each hurdle effortlessly with only one leg (unlike most hurdlers, who do it with two).
And yet, the path of the golden girl would be marred by a series of disappointments, the result of poor decision-making by school and state sports officials.
In June 1958, the Perak Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) Championships saw Pek taking the women’s individual title and setting up three records, including the 80m hurdles. However, according to a report in The Straits Times dated June 29,1958, “Perak AAA officials decided that Pek had violated the ‘rules’ by competing in more than three events (four), and though her new mark for the hurdles will stand for the state record, she was ‘disqualified’ from the event and the first place awarded to someone else.”
A bigger blow was to come. In July 1959, Pek participated in the inter-zone championships held in Ipoh, producing results that qualified her for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Thus, it came a huge shock to many when the Perak AAA announced that it had pushed for and succeeded in getting the state’s top male athlete, K. Selvaratnam, into Malaya’s team for the Olympics but left her out.
Pek had notched a time of 12.7 for the 80m hurdles, which broke the state record by 0.9 seconds and equalled the SEAP (South-East Asian Peninsula) Games record and collected 796 points, compared to Selvaratnam, who broke the state record by 0.3 seconds and collected 706 points!
A Times Of Malaya exposé blamed the controversial decision on Perak’s representative on the Federation of Malaya Amateur Athletes Union (FMAAU) selection committee, who apparently decided to exclude Pek because sending her would have meant also paying the way for a female chaperon.
A kindly, “well-to-do lady” in Ipoh, outraged by the unfairness of it all, stepped forward to offer to chaperon Pek at her own expense, and for a while it seemed that Pek might be included after all. However, after all the hue and cry, this did not transpire, and even Selvaratnam – for some reason – did not go to Rome. In the end, Malaya was represented by three male athletes in Rome: M. Jegathesan, Shahrudin Mohd Ali and Kamaruddin Maidin.
As disappointed as she was, Pek felt even more badly for Mr Geoffrey, who was utterly devastated. In November 1959, she pulled out of the Malayan team to the SEAP Games in Bangkok. The reason given was “illness”, but the truth was that her school had urged her to withdraw because the Games were dangerously close to her Senior Cambridge exams. In her place, the FMAAU named Lily Tan of Johor, who had been placed third in the Malayan championships.
In 1960, Pek set her sights on entering university after passing her Senior Cambridge with a Grade One, one of the 11 girls in her class of 30 to do so. She had been the school head girl and had a glass cabinet filled with championship trophies and scrolls. Surely it was not unreasonable to expect a scholarship?
Alas, it was not to be. A trip to the Federal House in KL for the scholarship interview ended with her coming away empty-handed and bitter.
“I felt so bad because it meant that my poor mother would have to use up all her savings to pay for my university education,” Pek recalls. “For all that I had accomplished for my school and the state, I really thought that I could have got some help.”
Pek parted ways with track upon entering university; or more accurately, she was not ever asked to run again for her state or country.
Two years after graduating with her BA from the University of Malaya, she married and had three boys (including a pair of twins) .
“I can’t say I regret it but I wish I had thought through my decision to marry so early,” she says. “I married the first and only man to ask me out at university. And when he asked, I felt I couldn’t say no because we had been going out for three years.”
In 1985, she and her husband were divorced. Then 42, she struggled to bring up her rumbustious teenage sons while teaching at Garden International School in KL.
In 1995, she met a man who would change her life dramatically.
Brian Peake was a builder/carpenter from New Zealand engaged by a local developer to help supervise the construction of a new retail mall. Pek’s friends thought him rather rough and gruff, but in him she found a kindred spirit who shared a love of the outdoors and a yearning for a life of farming. Within less than five months of their meeting, they married and Pek went off to start a new life in New Zealand as a farmer’s wife.
Sadly, her beloved Brian fell ill and died in 2005, so Pek returned to Malaysia. What followed was a difficult period of adjustment, but with the support and encouragement of friends and family, Pek picked up the pieces to start life anew.
When I caught up with Pek on July 23, she had just taken part in a four-person relay half-marathon, organised by the Klang Pacers Athletic Club (KPAC), with her two young granddaughters and son two days earlier.
The unique event required the ages of each family team to add up to at least 125 years, with each member covering 3km. Pek ran the third slot, and although the course was more challenging than anyone anticipated, discovered she was still in good running form, as acclaimed by the enthusiastic crowd that wildly cheered her on.
Today, although silver-haired, tanned and weather-beaten, Pek’s grey eyes still twinkle and her face is remarkably unlined, belying her years. Typically, she spends six months of the year abroad, visiting Peake’s family in New Zealand and her two sons in America. As fiercely independent and self-sufficient as ever, she will not slow down or give up pursuing new challenges – in 2007, she took up mountain biking and skiing.
Pek is also thrilled that her younger granddaughter might one day achieve what she did not do – represent Malaysia in the Olympics.
In 2008, Megan Elizabeth Teoh, or Piper as she is called, then only seven, was “spotted” by the Selangor diving coach at the Pusat Aquatic Darul Ehsan and asked to try out for training. Today, her training is a punishing 23 hours a week, six days weekly under the Pelapis After School Program, a programme that provides special coaching for young talented athletes with potential.
“Piper has a real chance because I see in her a determination that I never had myself,” says Pek modestly. She also remembers that her own parents never ever came to see her compete, so she is happy to see Piper’s parents showing unstinting support for their daughter’s passion.
Of course, Pek also wonders what Mr Geoffrey would have thought. She visited him in Sydney in 2000, where he had settled after emigrating to Australia. During the visit, they did not dwell on the past but on their lives since they parted. But Mr Geoffrey passed to her newspaper clippings he had kept over the years of her wins and record-breaking running times.
“My story is as much Mr Geoffrey’s as it is mine,” says Pek. “What I accomplished, I owe to him. And now it is my hope that it will also inspire Piper to fulfil her own Olympic dream.”
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