A young Orang Asli woman from Pahang is out to prove that nothing is impossible in sports as long as you work hard enough and long enough to chase your dreams.
Nia Vanessa Suhana, 23, used to accompany her friend, Siti Natasha, to the cycling track every weekend to watch her train.
While she was an athlete in her own right, she specialised in canoeing or rowing. Following Siti Natasha to her training sessions, she kept mostly to the sidelines, bringing the others water whenever they were thirsty.
“I was the water girl,” she said in a recent interview with MalaysiaNow.
Eventually, though, the trainer invited Nia to join in as well. That was the start of her career in mountain biking — a sport where speed and endurance are needed in equal quantities.
At that time, Nia was only 15 years old and still attending boarding school in Kuantan. By the time she was 17, though, she was participating in competitions on both the domestic and international fronts.
Now, she is recognised as one of the country’s best in the sport, recently winning first place in the women’s open category at the Enduro Bukit 300 Challenge 2022 in Perak.
In the international arena, Nia has participated in contests in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, finishing among the top three in every one.
“Nobody thought I could do it,” she said. “I used to be the weakest one in the team.
“It’s all thanks to my trainer and my friends that I have made it this far.”
Nia is the oldest of four siblings. Her mother is from the Temuan tribe while her father is from the Semelai community.
She is currently in her final semester of a course in sports science at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in Bangi.
But while she is familiar with standing on podiums at international competitions, it’s an uphill climb for support in the country where mountain biking is not a known sport.
Nia pays for everything herself: the cost of equipment, entrance fees, accommodation and transportation to competition venues.
She received assistance and sponsorships from the Pahang sports council but this is not enough to cover the true cost of her expenses.
Nevertheless, things are beginning to look up for the young athlete, who was recently given a better bicycle as well as a scholarship at university.
“This way, I can pay for my own studies,” she said. “I can take care of myself without depending on my parents anymore.”
But even with her tight schedule, packed to the brim with training sessions and competitions, she is mindful of the need to concentrate on her studies.
At night, she turns her focus to her work — reading, completing her assignments, and studying for upcoming exams.
During the day, she is fully immersed in her training.
“I once lagged by a full month behind my classmates because of training and competitions,” she said. “But my friends helped me catch up.”
Nia has considered opening a cycling centre in her village to help Orang Asli children take up the sport, but she knows that this will be difficult to achieve.
“Anyone would be able to join, not just Orang Asli children,” she said.
“But this would be very expensive, and Orang Asli children are poor. They have no money for bicycles.
“If we could get sponsors, maybe more people could join and more athletes could be found.”
She said many of her relatives and friends back in the village had voiced hope of being “like Nia”, becoming athletes and going to university one day.
This makes her more determined than ever to succeed.
“Not many know who I am, but when I hear things like that, I know that I have to work harder,” she said.
She also hopes to become a sports ambassador to help other young people who dream of becoming athletes.
While some belittle her for choosing a career in sports, or say that mountain biking is an unknown event, her dream is to prove them wrong.
“I want to show them that through sports, I can succeed and stand on my own two feet,” she said.
“I have been scolded by people who look down on me, but I can silence them through my success and prove that sports can lift people up as well.
“Through sports, I can be independent, and I can still continue with my studies. Just because I’m an athlete doesn’t mean I neglect my classes.”