10 things about: Spartan Malaysia’s one-armed athlete Loh Chee Khoon

Loh Chee Khoon used to be very self-conscious about being born without a left arm. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Loh Chee Khoon used to be very self-conscious about being born without a left arm. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, July 8 — Born without his left arm, Loh Chee Khoon had always been wary about what people think of him.

The 28-year-old had put on a prosthetic arm — which he had to change every two years — for the past 20 years to give him the confidence to face the world.

And being the youngest of four siblings, Loh said he was literally spoon-fed until he entered university in 2007 where he learned to do things himself with little or no help.

Chee Khoon was forced to learn to do things himself with little or no help when he went to university. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Chee Khoon was forced to learn to do things himself with little or no help when he went to university. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Today, he is not only a successful computer programme designer, he also represents Malaysia in one of the world’s toughest obstacle races — Spartan Race — for its Asia Pacific Championship (APAC) series.

Recently he sat down with Malay Mail Online to chat about his journey and its many challenges.

In his own words:

When I was young, I used to give up on everything very fast. You give me something to do and if I find it challenging, I will just not do it my sisters or brother will pick up my slack. I was also very conscious about what others think about me, so I didn’t have many friends in school. In fact, until today, I only have like three to four close friends. My parents, who both work in a government clinic and hospital, had to fork out RM10,000 every two years to buy me the prosthetic arm because as I grew, it had to be changed to fit me. Yes, I was in that state where I lacked self-confidence until I entered university in Cyberjaya where I lived alone and had no one but myself to depend on.

I learned to tie my shoelaces, wash my own clothes, make my own bed and do other things myself. It was a challenge, but it was my decision as I wanted to move away from my comfort zone. But I was still very conscious about my looks as I was still shy to remove my prosthetic arm in public. The prosthetic arm, however, was a hindrance to me. Because it is not robotic, it served no purpose besides giving the impression of me having an arm. Without it, I can function better as I can control my upper left arm and it was easier to hold objects like the huge DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera during assignments. I think I was still in my first year in university when I decided to remove that prosthetic arm and walk in public with my head held high.

But people treated me differently still. In fact, I can clearly remember two incidents where I felt so hurt that I felt like it was the end of the world for me. The first was in university where I was unable to show a clean artwork. I had to make a sculpture using rotan and it was difficult for me as I had to use my legs and my right arm to get it done. I admit, it was not the most beautiful work in my class. My lecturer, after seeing it, said it was bad and he said he wanted to snip my other arm off. I felt so hurt and my classmates, instead of supporting me, laughed at me. I cried that night in my room and told my mum that I wanted to quit. But the next day, I decided not to and told myself that my lecturer probably didn’t mean it and perhaps only uttered those hurtful words because he wanted me to improve myself. The second incident was at my first job after graduation. My manager then was very “difficult.” I was unable to deliver what she wanted me to do and she told me that “people like me” — as she looked at my left arm — should be grateful to have a job. It was then I decided to leave that job and join my current place. At my current job, my manager is very supportive and my colleagues are wonderful. These two incidents, although they are still hurtful if I think about them today, have only made me stronger.

In 2012, I had just started work in KL and because I didn’t have many commitments, I spent most of my money on food. I was about 70kgs and I gained an extra 10 kilos in just several months after working. Eating out was my favourite pastime, as I had nothing else to do aside from work. It was about food hunting and walloping all kinds of delicious food over the weekend. I became fat and I felt I looked ugly in any clothes I put on. I slowly grew conscious again of my looks. This was when I met a friend who is active in the running community. She would always show me her finisher medals and I was always fascinated by them. She coaxed me into joining her for runs but I was too shy to do so. I wanted to follow her but I was too shy as I was afraid that I would embarrass myself and her if I followed her for a race. But I knew I had to do something so I joined a gym. I signed up a three-month contract with the gym, but it has been five years now.

Chee Khoon attempting to climb the wall at one of Spartan's Race on his own. — Picture courtesy of Spartan Race Malaysia
Chee Khoon attempting to climb the wall at one of Spartan's Race on his own. — Picture courtesy of Spartan Race Malaysia

My first run was also the same year I joined the gym. It was a 10km run and most of my friends were doubtful that I could make it. Some even said that I would collapse half way and that I would be troubling the medical team. It was a big step for me despite the negative remarks, but I participated in the run nevertheless. The race day came and I ran it alongside my friend. At the halfway point of the race, I felt like giving up but I kept telling myself to finish the race and prove the naysayers wrong and I did it. It was a wonderful feeling crossing the finishing line and collecting my first ever medal.

I have been joining runs ever since. It became like an addiction. In 2014, Malaysia saw one of the famous obstacle course races hit the country through Reebok One Challenge. It was a big deal as it was a 21km route with obstacles. I signed up for it immediately but weeks later, a manager from Reebok reached out to me. She asked if I was aware that the race involved obstacles, to which, I said yes. She then asked me to go over to their office for a meeting. I was thinking they were going to tell me off nicely that because of my condition, I would not be able to participate. Instead, I was surprised when they told me that Reebok wanted to sponsor me and wanted me to be their brand influencer.

Ever since then, Reebok, being the main sponsor of Spartan Race, also agreed to sponsor me for its races. I participated in its inaugural race in 2015 at Setia Alam during the five kilometres’ Spartan Sprint event. This event was an eye opener for me as unlike the Reebok One Challenge where obstacles were placed after the 10km mark, obstacles for this race were placed as early as just several hundred metres after the starting point. That time, I joined with a group of friends and they helped me at certain obstacles, especially when climbing walls. It was the spirit of camaraderie in the race, which saw other racers also helping me when my friends were slightly ahead.

Chee Khoon loves the fantastic spirit of camaraderie at Spartan races. — Picture courtesy of Spartan Race Malaysia
Chee Khoon loves the fantastic spirit of camaraderie at Spartan races. — Picture courtesy of Spartan Race Malaysia

As time went on, Spartan Race Malaysia said they were sponsoring the top racers from the men and women category to represent Malaysia in the APAC series this year. For the first race of its series held earlier in Hong Kong, Spartan Malaysia said they wanted me to go along as an influencer. I was overwhelmed as obviously I am not as good as the other two. And doing the race alone without my group of friends was obviously going to be hard, or at least that was what I thought. However, in Hong Kong, the spirit of helping each other was also there. Participants helped me up walls and go through obstacles that required both hands. I however skipped the monkey bar, atlas ball carry, and rope traverse obstacles. In lieu, I would perform 30 burpees for each obstacle I skipped. So yes, by the time I crossed the finishing line, I had done more than 100 burpees.

Come July 9 (2017), I will be representing Malaysia for the APAC series in Putrajaya. The pressure is there but I am sort of used to it already. I have been training six to seven days a week for this race. I know it is a little farfetched but I hope to master the rope climb by then. At least, before the APAC series ends in Perth in November, this year, I hope to be able to do the rope climb.  

What I do today may sound crazy to some, especially the fact that I am a one-armed Spartan participant. I will tell this to all those in my situation, don’t be shy to chase your dreams. If I can do it, I am sure you can also do it. Pick your passion and go for it. Mine is sports, yours may be something else. Just do what you believe in and the world is your oyster.

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