PETALING JAYA: Seven years after Malaysian sprinter Mumtaz Jaafar had overcome asthma, she left her Sea Games rivals gasping to win the 100m in 1981.
Sixteen years later, 30-year-old super mum Shanti Govindasamy pulled off what was perhaps one of the most thrilling comeback stories in Sea Games sprint history.
Both of them became the fastest women in the region and not since Shanti’s unbelievable wins in the 100m and 200m has a Malaysian woman won gold in the sprints at the Sea Games.
Their furious release of energy after overcoming illness and impossible odds was a miracle of fight and flight.
They had that old school grit, thought like warriors, chose to challenge the ordinary and helped pave a path for Malaysian women in sport.
The breathless reality of Mumtaz’s life as a child was a battle to breathe.
Her asthma was so bad that she received special attention and lived a sheltered life.
She could not take the school bus with her sisters to the St Teresa Convent in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, because the attacks came suddenly.
She had to sit out physical education classes and watch the other students run, jump and throw. By a stroke of luck, she would later become an accidental sprinter.
Shanti’s comeback was particularly remarkable for the sprints in which form rarely shows an upward turn as age increases.
While Mumtaz gallantly overcame the cruel ordeal of asthma as a child, Shanti showed that age does not change anything.
“I see the many opportunities I have been given in my life as miracles,” Mumtaz says in the third episode of “We Were Champions” that airs tonight.
Spirited Shanti said she has proven that motherhood does not need to mean an end to one’s dreams.
Their hard work and determination to carry the sporting hopes of the nation on their shoulders are celebrated in “We Were Champions” that recounts the victories and heartbreaks of 12 Malaysian champions from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Mumtaz makes public her struggle with asthma and talks excitedly about the time as a 12-year-old when her teacher asked her to replace an absent runner in the 100m during her school’s athletics meet.
She did so reluctantly and won the race. The run transformed her life.
“The asthma attacks stopped and I felt good as I went on in the following years to carry weights and do hill runs. I felt good,” Mumtaz said.
Soon, she shone at state, national and Asean level competitions. “Running gave me a new lease of life.”
In 1978, at the age of 16, Mumtaz was selected as a reserve in the Malaysian 4x100m relay team to the Bangkok Asian Games.
It was the beginning of her international athletics career. But it was at the 1981 Manila Sea Games that Mumtaz made her mark.
She won the gold in the 100m in 11.84s ahead of Henny Maspaitella of Indonesia and became the fastest woman in the region.
Malaysia had not struck gold in the women’s 100m since Cheryl Dorall won it in 1967 when it was the Seap Games. Prior to that, Carmen Koelmeyer won the event at the inaugural games in Bangkok in 1959.
After finishing second to Filipina hotshot Lydia de Vega in the 200m in the 1981 Games, Mumtaz joined Zaiton Othman, Saik Oik Cum and V Angamah to win both the 4x100m and the 4x400m relays.
The quartet broke the Sea Games and the national record in the 4x100m (46.42) and the Asian record in the 4x400m (3:41.35).
Later that year, the crack team won the 4x400m at the Asian Athletics Championships in Tokyo.
Mumtaz capped her 10-year athletics career with a silver in the 4x100m relay at the 1989 Kuala Lumpur Sea Games, with Shanti, Anita Ali and Sajaratudul Hamzah making up the quartet.
From hockey to sprint
Like Mumtaz, providence drew Kuala Kangsar-born Shanti, the youngest of 12 children, to sport.
Shanti became a hockey goalkeeper by chance in her school team when the regular custodian quit the squad.
She made it all the way to the national team and was in the squad as second goalkeeper at the 1986 Seoul Asian Games.
Her captain K Maheswari, however, noticed she had potential in sprints and introduced her to the head coach of Maybank, the late Ishtiaq Mubarak, who was looking for a sprinter.
Shanti performed dismally at her first major national competition, the inter-bank meet, but Ishtiaq, a champion hurdler and Olympian, kept his faith in her.
Later, under the tutelage of national coach Harun Rasheed, Shanti improved tremendously and made her first international appearance at the 1989 Sea Games, but she was largely unnoticed.
However, at the 1991 Manila Sea Games, when she pipped favourite de Vega in the 200m and narrowly lost to her in the 100m, Shanti began to be taken seriously.
After credible performances in the IAAF championships and the Asian track and field competition, Shanti prepared for another face-off with de Vega at the 1993 Singapore Sea Games, but ended second best to the Filipina.
Shanti ended 1993, by setting a new national record of 11.5 seconds in the 100m, a mark that remains unmatched until today.
In 1995, at the age of 28, Shanti retired from athletics, despondent for not having achieved her dream of winning both the sprints in the same international competition.
After starting a family, Shanti, encouraged by her husband Kannan Rajoo, made a comeback at the 1997 Jakarta Sea Games, winning gold against all odds in the 100m and 200m.
The next year, the mother of two set a new national record of 23.37 in the 200m at the Asian athletics championships in Japan.
The heroics of the queen of comebacks earned her the National Sportswoman of the Year award the following year.
Today, Mumtaz and Shanti continue their quest to promote women in sport.
Mumtaz occasionally gives talks to parents whose children are suffering from asthma to place emphasis on sports.
She is a vice-president of the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) and was the first woman to be elected deputy president of the Malaysia Athletics Federation (MAF), a post she relinquished this year.
Both these legends were the embodiment of women in love with their athletics pursuits and their country.
The story of Mumtaz Jaafar and G Shanti in We Were Champions will be aired at 10.30 tonight over Sukan RTM Channel 111 Myfreeview.