Taking It To The Extreme

Meet adventurous expats who push themselves to new heights through the challenges of sport.

by / Published: 24 Jul 2017

Taking It To The Extreme
Photo: Raymond Pung (unknown-imagery)

Chad Laws (Marketing & Communications Director), Noah Sturrock, Steve Willis (PE Teachers), Mark Pate (Maths and Science Teacher) at the International School of Kuala Lumpur  

Chad grew up in Oregon and has been hiking all his life. “Time to think, being surrounded by nature and exercising are a powerful combination. I’ve had many memorable trekking experiences from Nepal, Italy and Austria, and desert hiking in Arizona.”

When the opportunity to embark on an adventure trekking to Everest Base Camp (5,360m) with like-minded friends arose; Chad, Noah, Steve and Mark decided that this would be the perfect start to the summer break. This wasn’t going to be just some boys’ trip to cross off the list, but rather one where they gave back in some way.

Working with an established local trekking company, Api Himal, they came up with a two-week trip traversing a series of trails through villages, across plains, over rivers and up mountains to finally end up at the Everest Base Camp. This is no walk in the park and a certain level of fitness is necessary to complete the trek, so for the weeks leading up to the trip, there were day trips to popular hikes around the Klang Valley and gym work. 

Besides the promise of camaraderie and the actual trek, this was a trip with a mission. The group would spend some time at OCEAN Nepal, which is a lovely little children’s home in Kathmandu started by a guide who noticed during his trekking expeditions that there were children actually working in terrible conditions.

He decided to do something about it and OCEAN Nepal was set up as a non-profit and non-government organisation presently housing 16 children. The children are looked after well and strongly encouraged to do well in school. International schools like ISKL have visited as part of their student trips and helped with the upkeep of the home; and the trekking company also offers a generous percentage of their profits to ensure the children are well looked after. 

When asked how a trip like this helps someone develop as a person and within a team, Chad had this to say, “Collaboration, trust and inspiration – hiking in groups requires all these – and these are actually invaluable traits in life.” 

Ultimately, adverse weather conditions thwarted Chad's attempt to complete the Everest Base Camp trek as they were fogged out for two days and could not fly to Lukla. As an alternative, they flew to Pokhara instead – still in Nepal – and climbed to Annapurna Base Camp, covering much ground and challenging themselves on the steep trek. 

Melissa Zecha (Well-being coach, Gyrotonics and Pilates instructor) 

Melissa used to drive a Lotus Evora – with a manual transmission, no less. For those who aren’t into cars, all you have to know is that it’s quick off the mark, looks like a proper sports car and there are very few of them in Malaysia. She felt she needed to learn how to drive the car safely and with confidence, so decided to give go-karting a try to improve her skills.

“I love go-karting as it is physically demanding and I noticed I was getting fitter and leaner. Now, I can run up hills with ease and swim longer. Also, with the challenges and the experience I gain from karting, I’m becoming a better driver.” 

After two years of participating in a sport that is still predominantly male, Melissa says people are surprised that a (youthful) 46-year-old woman would be interested in an aggressive, fast sport. There are hardly any females on the track, which is surprising as one of the biggest advantages of being a woman driver is the fact that being lighter, means going faster!

Melissa recounted how she was part of a four-man Lotus team racing on the Shah Alam circuit last year and it was only her third time on the track. Competing against seasoned drivers was daunting and being the only female meant the pressure was on not to spin out and end up in at the back of the line. With only 30 minutes of track time behind her, the team managed to come fourth out of nine experienced teams. 

As with any adrenaline-pumping sport, go-karting does have an element of risk, but it can be mitigated. “Go-karting requires specialised protective gear like a full-face helmet, rib cage guard, suit, gloves and shoes. Take advice from experienced drivers. I swim and do push-ups to develop better upper body strength.” All this also requires discipline and focus; beneath her lovely veneer, Melissa definitely has nerves of steel and a fantastic sense of adventure. 

Go-karting is considered one of the safer motorsports, but it still requires drivers to be calm, patient and to never give in to aggression. Fitness and even the way you breathe makes an impact. “In the beginning I had to learn to control my breath to keep calm. As my breathing improved, I realised my core muscles were strengthening. It’s an excellent sport to experience speed and g-force, and the sense of freedom may just unlock the greatness in you!” 

Melissa teaches Pilates and Gyrotonics so is already fit. To keep up with the rigours of her track time, she also runs, swims and practises tai chi. “When the body is active, we release happy hormones, sleep better, our circulatory system works better, and we’re less likely to get sick.” The moral of this interesting story is that if you want to live life to the fullest, look great at any age and feel the need for speed, we say do as Melissa does and hit that track! 

Rebecca Hunter (Primary Teacher at Garden International School)

With frantic scrums and bone-crunching tackles, rugby isn’t the most delicate of sports, as Rebecca well knows. She’s had many incredulous reactions when people discover that she’s been playing for over ten years. Even though the stigma of being a female rugby player has followed her over the world, she isn’t fazed. “There is no other sport for me and you have to do what you love.”

The Scottish lass has her father and brother to thank for her love affair with rugby; her father took her and her younger brother to the local rugby club, and when her brother started playing, she went to his matches for support and fell in love. Over the last decade, Rebecca has played for three teams in three countries, starting with 15s in Scotland, 7s in Romania and now 10s in Malaysia with the KL Tigers

Rebecca has many good memories of playing rugby. In Romania, she was the only foreigner in the tournament; in her first tour to the Bangkok 10s, she helped beat the Bangkok Belles. Recently, her team won the Jakarta 10s for the second year. “I really enjoyed a moment where I smashed through three or four girls who couldn’t tackle me, and passed the ball to my captain who scored a try!”

Beneath the friendly Garden International School teacher exterior is a competitive spirit that isn’t afraid to give as good as she gets. “I love the physicality of the sport. In no other sport can you hit a person hard and get away with it. I am not an aggressive person, but I have learnt passion and drive through playing rugby – how to get low and dig deep.”

That sounds like it might (and frequently does) result in injury, but Rebecca notes that as long as you train hard, keep fit, learn how to play safely, commit to your actions and don’t fear the potential of injury, you can minimise the risk of getting hurt. 

Despite the risks, there are also major advantages to playing rugby: it encourages teamwork, sportsmanship and cohesion among players and builds confident, determined and social characters. Thanks to greater coverage of the sport, it’s been picking up and there are more women’s teams in Kuala Lumpur, which Rebecca thinks is great. “Hopefully, one day there won’t be a stigma and people will accept that women like to play rough sports just like men!” 

Alan Kneisz (Business Development Director at Hydrogenics)
It might seem strange that there’s an ice hockey community in the middle of the tropics, but Alan Kneisz would be happy to tell you all about it. Like any good Canadian, Alan has been playing hockey in leagues since he was six years old, going all over North America and Asia to play in tournaments for over 40 years – and his children are following in his footsteps.
Ice hockey regularly has a place in lists of ‘most difficult sports’ due to its taxing nature and the high level of skill and fitness required. Players are only on the ice for a minute or less before they’re swapped out to rest for a few minutes, but that’s because they’re essentially full-out sprinting the whole time while carrying a good few kilos’ worth of gear. It’s tough keeping up that momentum!
Since ice hockey is also classified as a contact sport – which means bodily contact is all part of the game – it can be dangerous. Alan has needed stitches after being hit in the forehead by an errant puck and broken his nose from an awkward fall. But he shrugs it off – “you’re just so focused on getting back on the ice” – and has even continued playing despite his broken nose, opting to just put his cage over it. They don’t play contact here in KL, though: “We have day jobs so injuries would get in the way of work and paying the bills!”
The sport is considered one of the fastest in the world – players often skate at 30-40km/h and the puck can whizz by at speeds well over 100km/h – and that’s a big reason for Alan’s fascination. “I love the speed and action. It is almost as exciting to watch as it is to play.” The excitement can bubble over into lost tempers among players at times, but it’s always ‘left on the ice’ and a cold beer sets all things to rights after.
Alan is passionate about the local development of the sport. He has played with the KL Cobras for many years, serving as their General Manager for seven; currently, he also coaches two kids’ teams. “Hockey is often regarded as the world’s second largest team sport, and any team sport helps people develop. I can see the kids I coach coming out of their shell, developing friends, and honing coordination skills for the game.”
More ice rinks are being built in the country and with ice hockey included in the upcoming Southeast Asian games in KL, Alan believes that it will give the sport the exposure it needs. People interested in learning how to skate and play here can check out the Malaysia Ice Hockey Federation or the KL Cobras. 

Raj Ahmed (IT Manager, Standard Chartered)

Most people dread facing obstacles, but Raj welcomes the challenge of overcoming them – particularly where obstacle course racing (OCR) is concerned. The former fitness trainer has always been passionate about strength training and calisthenics, but got into running when he moved to Malaysia and saw a whole new world open up after he joined his friends in a Tough Mudder (an OCR) in Perth.

“I love OCRs because it combines all the key ingredients of fitness that I really enjoy: strength, speed, stamina and skill,” says the UK native. There doesn’t seem to be many OCRs he hasn’t run in; besides Tough Mudder and Urbanathlon, he’s also been a facilitator for the Viper Challenge series, which really sparked OCR interest locally. 

Though many OCRs focus on teamwork and don’t have penalties or time limits, Raj also enjoys the competitive element and is proud to call himself an Elite Spartan Athlete – the best individual racers of a Spartan Race, one of the pioneers of competitive obstacle course racing. These races are a serious test of endurance and fitness, especially with the penalty of 30 extra burpees to do at every failed challenge. 

Hauling buckets of stones, crawling under barbed wire and ploughing through mud might not be everyone’s cup of tea – “’Why would you do that to yourself?’ is something I have heard a few times, and ‘you must be crazy’ is the other!” – but Raj clearly relishes pushing his limits. It should come as no surprise that he’s an American Ninja Warrior fan!

It’s inevitable that an OCR enthusiast will need to be reasonably fit. Raj says that being able to run for at least 75 per cent of the actual race distance is a major advantage, as you won’t spend as long in the energy-sapping Malaysian heat. Strength training is also important to build muscle. Raj himself enjoys a variety of exercises such as parkour, gymnastics, Muay Thai and yoga as he likes to learn new things.

Mentality is also important, however – mind over body, as they say. “Just be open-minded and have a positive attitude. OCRs are all about achievements; set your own goals and work towards that,” advises Raj. A person who leads a sedentary lifestyle might just aim to complete the course, while really fit athletes may try for a podium finish. 

While OCRs are only just beginning to gain popularity in Malaysia, Raj’s own passion for the sport springs from a belief that OCRs push people to be better, both physically and mentally. “I have seen people do incredible things during an OCR. Confidence grows when you know you have overcome your fear of heights, or you lugged a bucket full of rocks further than your mind told you you could.”