Ronald Susilo did not think he would end up playing badminton on the global stage. But he did, and went on to win dozens of medals for his adopted country.
In 2004, former Singapore shuttler Ronald Susilo played through the Athens Olympic Games with a shoulder injury. At the 2007 South-east Asian Games, he tore a muscle on his elbow and had to undergo surgery for the third time in three years.
At the height of his fame, when he was hailed as the country’s hero, pain was a constant companion. And it never left him.
Seven years after hanging up his racket and retiring from competitive badminton, Susilo’s lean body still bears the battle scars he racked up playing for Singapore.
“Every day, I was taking pain killers,” he said. “But people didn’t know how much I had gone through to be there. On the court, they just saw me win or lose.”
In 2015, he wanted to make a comeback in the SEA Games, but that bid was again hampered by another injury to his hip, which forced him to pull out of the competition.
Despite his injuries, Susilo was for many years Singapore’s undisputed No. 1 male shuttler, and the face of badminton in Singapore.
One of Susilo’s greatest achievements was winning the Japan Open.
Originally from Jakarta, Susilo moved to Singapore in 1993 when he was 14, where he studied at the Anglo Chinese School (Independent) and played for the school’s badminton team.
Although he had been playing badminton since he was eight in Indonesia, he matured into a world-class player during his years here. At his peak, he had the 2004 Japan Open, a major title, to his name, and a world ranking that peaked at No. 6 the same year.
Initially, he had not planned to play the sport competitively.
“When I came to Singapore, my dad just wanted me to have a good education,” he said. “I never thought I would be a professional badminton player.”
After his O-levels, he wanted to continue his studies in Australia. But the financial crisis hit in 1997, the rupiah plummeted and he had to shelve the plan.
“I didn’t want to spend any more of my parents’ money. We come from a middle-class family, it’s not good for me to burden my family. So I decided to stay in Singapore, and earn a living on my own. That’s how I decided to play full-time,” he said, on joining the Singapore national team in 1998.
In 2002, he became a Singapore citizen. “Looking back, it was fate lah,” he said with a laugh. “Everything just fell into place.”
Fitting in was hard for him at first. “It was very tough in my first year here, especially language. I had never studied English before. I could understand when people talked to me but my responses were very bad. I was not used to having conversations in English,” he said.
“I was shy in class. I didn’t dare to talk much. I was so scared I would say the wrong thing. Most of my responses were, ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘I don’t know’.”
After Susilo retired from competitive badminton, he has been spending time building his badminton academy and playing with his two children Gwen (left), 3, and Edward (right), 5.
He gradually grew comfortable in Singapore, and even when there were criticisms of the foreign sports talent scheme, the shuttler remained unperturbed.
“In fact, I wasn’t a ready player that Singapore adopted. I’m not like a champion who was picked to represent the country. I came to have my education here first, then decided to play professionally.
“I grew up in Singapore. I spent most of my life here. And I live here now,” said Susilo, who is married to a fellow Indonesian-born Singaporean. They have two children, a son aged five and a daughter who is three years old.
Following his retirement, Susilo has devoted most of his time to running his eponymous badminton academy. He started the Ronald Susilo Badminton Academy here in 2010 and is its head coach.
“After playing for so many years, I would like to impart my knowledge and skills to the young ones. The goal is to produce badminton champions in the future and at the same time, promote the sport and to continue my legacy here.”
About 70 students are enrolled at the academy, who train at Raffles Institution every day. Susilo’s five-year-old son, Edward, is the academy’s youngest player, while the oldest is 50.
“I bring Edward to the academy once a week. He has the talent. I didn’t teach him much but he is able to hit well. He has got the ball sense,” he said.
Today, Susilo is happy in his new position at the courtside, focusing his time and energy on coaching the next generation of champion Singapore badminton players.
He said: “One day, I hope to produce a champion for Singapore – not just earning a living through badminton.”