There are career breakthroughs, like young Priyanshu Rajawat’s at the Orleans Masters. And then there are life-breakthroughs like Toh Ee Wei’s. Again at Orleans Masters. The Malaysian 22-year-old mixed doubles champion from the final event of the European swing, suffered from bone tuberculosis just a year ago. 12 months after the diagnosis, treatment and rehab and training, the livewire on a doubles court, was back alongside Tang Jie Chen to claim her first tournament victory. It brought the pairing within the Top 20 in mixed doubles, a call-up to Malaysia’s Sudirman Cup squad and it brought oodles of inspiration to those who watch badminton’s champion practitioners who overcome some very dire diagnoses and return to win on court.
Bone TB is very painful, ‘very suffer’ like Ee Wei says, stressing that popping painkillers was fairly routine when she struggled with the ailment. The most heartbreaking thing for her was that it made her mother weep, watching her struggle in hospital. She sounds upbeat over the phone having spent a month-full of tournaments, though jetlagged on her return from France, she says. Losses could keep her focussed on what to do next, but it was after the win that she finally looked back at the travails of the last one year. An Insta post would alert the world to what she had gone through.
Ee Wei was diagnosed with Bone TB at 21. She had suffered from acute sinus issues (chronic sinusitis) prior to that in February of 2019. A junior World Championship silver medallist back in 2018 alongside Pearly Tan, she underwent a surgery for sinus-related issues at 18. It’s been there all the time, she says, the sport of badminton amplifying trouble in something as basic as breathing. The nose would be blocked, and it would be very hard to breathe. Yet, Bone TB would be another punch in the gut. It was especially thwarting for someone so sporty and bubbly, dynamic and lively as Ee Wei.
She had started badminton at age 7, playing in the house in Malacca. Her father would watch her getting immersed in the sport and pack her off to a local coaching centre. After a week of training, the sessions would increase. There’s a Youtube clip of Ee Wei’s, where she dives in front from the midcourt to send back the shuttle, and then next instant, tumbles back to sit on the court floor, and still manages to return from that hugely unbalanced position. There’s another where she misses a forehand tap completely like a racquethead gasping at air, but then drops the racquet and connects a backhand with the dipping shuttle below net level. Ee Wei simply loves badminton and is mightily good at it too. Koo Kien Keat, former doubles great from Malaysia, calls Ee Wei a ‘daring player’. You wouldn’t know if you watched her only on court, just how debilitating her situation was, just months ago.
She recalls starting to train a month after her hospital treatment for bone TB was over. ‘No muscle, no energy, no strength for 3 months,’ she remembers. While her teammates trained on the courts, and she would hear them squeal and guffaw as doubles sessions do, she would be in the gym in a tranquil tedium, knowing she had a lot of strength work to catch up on. What others took for granted – the speed, the strength, the breathing, the stamina – she would need to slowly build. Just getting to a badminton court would be a struggle, as coaches Nova Widianto and Rexy Mainaky would urge her to take it slow and not rush. ‘Slowly. Slowly, slowly’ she recalls the strength returning for her to play her delectable and delightful strokes the way she liked playing them. The coaches knew her struggle, her federation rallied around her and they wanted her back to being her spry self, she recalls.
A fan of the legendary Indonesian Lilyana Natsir, Ee Wei would be paired with Tang Jie Chen, a power player, around the same time as when Nova and Rexy joined hands for Malaysian doubles – last December. But the beauty of the partnership is that they won the Orleans title even without adequate court time. She would be trundling away in the gym, with not many on-court sessions together with her partner. She fought through that post-rehab conditioning soreness of muscles, every day. She would work with S&C coach Nick Hedayatpour, who is called the strength artist at Kuala Lumpur.
At Orleans when Ee Wei and Tang Jie beat Lee Chia Hsin-Ye Hong Wei of Taiwan 21-19, 21-17 in 35 minutes for the title after four mere months of training, it was a breakthrough alongside young Priyanshu’s to remember the Super 300 by.