KUALA LUMPUR, March 1 — A team of young taekwondo enthusiasts from rural Sabah faced a devastating setback when they missed their connecting flight from Sandakan to Kuala Lumpur for an international martial arts championship in the federal capital yesterday.

However, their despair turned to hope when compassionate Malaysians came together to crowdfund new air tickets for them from Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur.

In a heartwarming display of gratitude, the teenage athletes reciprocated the kindness by clinching a gold medal in the 2024 Hwarang Warrior International Taekwondo Championship, here today.

Advertisement

Recalling the heart-rending saga, team manager Valerie Grace Peter Sompunodo told Bernama that the team had just about given up all hope on the competition in KL but with the help of caring Malaysians, the crowdfunding raised RM18,000 within four hours to buy the team new flight tickets to Kuala Lumpur.

Valerie Grace said she and her taekwondo team were supposed to board the plane from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan at 9.30am on February 28, but due to a delay in the flight schedule, they arrived in Sandakan late and missed the connecting flight out to Kuala Lumpur, leaving six of them stranded for several hours at Sandakan Airport.

“Truth be told, I’ve been searching for the cheapest flight tickets since last year for this competition and managed to get them for RM299, all paid for by the boys’ parents. So when we missed the connecting flight, we thought all hope was lost and considered withdrawing.

Advertisement

“Upon returning to Kota Kinabalu on February 28, we were pleasantly surprised by Riniejene Anthony’s generosity. He learned of our situation on social media and quickly raised funds, allowing us to purchase new flight tickets to KL for February 29,” she said.

Leonel Bellvin, 12, poses with the gold medal he won in the men’s kyorugi (combat) event, competing in the 38-45kg category for the 11-to-12 age group at the 2024 Hwarang Warrior International Taekwondo Championship in Kuala Lumpur March 1, 2024. — Bernama pic
Leonel Bellvin, 12, poses with the gold medal he won in the men’s kyorugi (combat) event, competing in the 38-45kg category for the 11-to-12 age group at the 2024 Hwarang Warrior International Taekwondo Championship in Kuala Lumpur March 1, 2024. — Bernama pic

Meanwhile, finally arriving at the 2024 Hwarang Warrior International Taekwondo Championship venue for competitive action, 12-year-old Leonel Bellvin swiftly clinched the gold medal in the men’s kyorugi (combat) event, competing in the 38-45kg category for the 11-to-12 age group.

“This is also my 12th birthday gift for March 7 and I want to win many more medals to bring fame and pride to the state, the school and my parents,” said Leonel who is Dusun and attends Sekolah Kebangsaan Popok in Kota Marudu.

Apart from Leonel, the four other participants who missed the Sandakan-KL flight were Evan Filemon, 15, Deqqusyairi Jaafar, 15, Darren Michael Daholok @ Peter, 16, and Erwin Daymiean Junaidi, 15, all of whom attend SK Bongkol in Pitas.

Meanwhile, coach of the ITF Sabah Choi Jung Hwa Taekwon-do Association team, Safuan Fathy Amran, 33, said he was very moved by the earnest effort shown by the public in crowdfunding last-minute airfare for the stranded team.

He elaborated on the challenges his team encountered during training for the KL tournament since last year, citing the lack of facilities and a suitable training location, particularly challenging given that his boys hailed from Kota Marudu and Pitas

According to him, the distance between the two districts being about 50 kilometres apart, he was always torn up to toss for a common training venue, considering that most of the team hail from the interior of Pitas and from poor families.

“I only have one concern — I don’t want their parents to feel let down. Some of them cried when they found out we missed the flight. I’m the most disappointed, but winning this gold medal is motivating for future contestants. Thank you, Malaysians,” he said. — Bernama