Diminutive track cyclist Azizulhasni Awang is heading to the Tokyo Games with big dreams of becoming the first Malaysian to win an Olympic gold medal.
He may be just 1.68 meters in height, but he is no stranger to standing tall on the world stage, demonstrated best when he earned the Southeast Asian country its first Olympic medal in cycling, a bronze in keirin at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Now, gold is firmly on his Tokyo agenda.
Azizulhasni, a regular near the top of the International Cycling Union world ranking lists in sprint and keirin, says the increased experience and confidence he carries on his heavily-muscled shoulders will allow him to make a mark at his fourth straight Olympic Games.
"I am a lot stronger, faster and wiser than I was in the last Olympics," he told Kyodo News in an interview via Zoom, with his Australian coach John Beasley watching on.
Malaysia has accumulated seven Olympic silver medals and four bronze, including Azizulhasni's. Eight of the nation's 11 medals have come in the wildly popular sport of badminton, with two others in diving. Azizulhasni is an outlier.
Only one other Malaysian, Rizal Tisin, has won a medal at the track cycling world championships. With seven, Azizulhasni is blazing a trail for his nation.
The 33-year-old is nicknamed the "pocket rocketman" due to his compact size and phenomenal power. He has gained 10 kilograms since the Rio Olympics, focused on building his lower body muscle mass to increase the burst and watts he can put through the pedals.
In 2017, he won his first gold at the world championships in the keirin event. At the 2020 edition, he finished third in the keirin and sprint.
Clocking in at 9.548 seconds over the final 200-meter blast in the 2020 sprint event's qualifying phase, he broke his personal best and the Asian record.
The 2020 worlds in Berlin took place in February and March, just before nations across the globe shut their borders when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Most major sporting events were impacted, including the Tokyo Olympics.
Following a one-year postponement, the Summer Games will begin on July 23. However, as the coronavirus outbreak shows no sign of abating in Tokyo, uncertainty looms over how the games will play out.
"To be honest, I am a little bit worried. I have family and kids," said Azizulhasni, a husband with two young daughters.
"The situation is uncertain, but we still have to go. John and I sat and talked a lot about this. (Our) conclusion is we will leave it to the IOC to decide. We just hope the (Tokyo Olympic) authorities do their best to ensure participants are safe," he said.
The one-year delay for him was a "blessing in disguise because it gave me more time and opportunity to train," he said.
Azizulhasni and Beasley have been based in Melbourne, Australia, but returned to Malaysia on June 7 for final preparations before they join the Malaysian contingent, 30 athletes competing in ten sports, that will head to Tokyo.
After undergoing a 14-day quarantine period, Azizulhasni started training with Beasley at the Malaysian National Velodrome in Nilai, southern Negeri Sembilan state. They were joined by another track cyclist Muhammad Shah Firdaus Sahrom, 25, who is making his Olympic debut in Tokyo, racing the keirin and sprint.
The sprint event is a highly tactical affair in which two riders go head-to-head over three laps. The first two circuits, however, are a battle of wits as each rider tries to position their bike on the steeply banked velodrome in a way that denies their opponent the chance to leech off their slipstream over the hectic final lap.
Keirin was born in Japan and still thrives as one of the four sports on which Japanese are legally allowed to gamble. It made its Olympic debut at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Raced over six laps at the Olympics, up to seven keirin riders follow a pacer on an engine-assisted bicycle called a derny. The pace-setter increases his speed gradually before exiting the track, releasing the riders on a final three-lap tussle for the win.
Keirin is Azizulhasni's favorite event and an article in U.S.-based cycling magazine VeloNews published during the 2016 Rio Games described what makes him one of its top proponents, even though he may not possess the outright pace of some others.
The article pointed out that keirin riders have to be even more tactically astute than sprint cyclists as each race requires supreme positional awareness with more riders jostling for the win.
"They have to be brave, as it's a discipline that sees frequent crashes and lots of contact. And they have to be fast over a full 2.5 laps, not just one short kick," it said.
"A rider like Malaysia's Azizulhasni Awang is a perfect example. He's a top keirin racer but doesn't put in the fastest 200-meter times. He does it with cunning and timing and a daring attitude," it added.
Azizulhasni, originally from a rural village in eastern Terengganu state, first experimented with mountain biking, but he could only afford a second-hand steed.
When he was 10 years old, he was spotted by his first coach, Rozimi Omar, who took Azizulhasni under his wing and enticed him into track racing.
He recalls Rozimi took him to join his first national track race in the Malaysian capital when he was 14.
"We drove the whole night, seven to eight hours, from Dungun (in Terengganu) straight to the velodrome in Kuala Lumpur and I had to borrow someone's bike. I (then) beat some of the more experienced riders," he said.
"People were shocked. It's like 'where did the kid come from?'"
He caught the attention of a national cycling team coach and was brought into the Malaysia national cycling federation program.
In mid-2007, he was sent to Melbourne by the federation to train under Beasley, whom it appointed as the national track cycling coach.
"When I first saw Azizulhasni, I wasn't sure how far he could go because of his stature," Beasley said.
"But my job was to train him. He has a lot of self-confidence and can push himself hard," he added.
Photo taken Sept. 6, 2018, shows Izu Velodrome, a 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics venue for cycling in Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo
Azizulhasni admitted people tend to underestimate him due to his size.
"People assume that you have to be tall and big to be a good cyclist," said Azizulhasni, proud he has proven exactly the opposite.
Nothing captured the steely determination Azizulhasni possesses better than what transpired at the 2011 Track World Cup in Manchester, Britain.
He was involved in a gruesome crash during the keirin which saw a 20-centimeter-long wood splinter from the track left protruding from his calf. Amazingly, he picked himself up and still managed to finish in third place.
With resolve like this, it would be a brave person who would bet against Azizulhasni standing taller than anyone else from the top step of the Tokyo Olympics' Izu Velodrome podium in early August.