Tight grip on self-belief

From the moment he picked up a table tennis bat at 10, David Jacobs has been defying expectations.

Despite being born with an underdeveloped right arm, he became the first Indonesian paddler to qualify for the Paralympic Games. His singles bronze in London three years ago was his country's first piece of silverware since 1988.

The 38-year-old, who competes in Class 10, the category for the lowest form of disability, also challenged convention when he won his national championship in 2000 in Kediri in east Java, beating able-bodied athletes along the way.

"My whole life has been like that, trying to prove myself," he told The Straits Times last week. "You need a strong mentality or you won't survive as an athlete."

That landmark victory in 2000, which made him the first disabled paddler to be crowned national champion, thrust him into the spotlight and on the sports covers of Indonesian newspapers.

The Jakarta resident, who hails from Maluku, an island between Sulawesi and Papua, was also invited to join the national squad.

He competed in five SEA Games and other top-tier events on the International Table Tennis Federation's Pro Tour circuit.

While he never saw himself as inferior, both at the table and off the court, mutual respect from other players was less than forthcoming early in his career.

"I remember my first SEA Games (September 2001 in Kuala Lumpur) was very tough and I played poorly.

"I was the only guy with a disability and when I walked into the competition venue, everyone was staring at me and my arm.

"They didn't say anything but I knew from the way they looked at me, they were thinking, 'He doesn't belong here'," recalled Jacobs, whose ITTF ranking a month before was world No. 359, just a spot lower than his career high of 358 in February 2010.

Yet, the youngest of six children eventually had the last laugh.

He won a doubles silver at the 2005 SEA Games and a bronze at the next edition two years later.

His stint with the national team ended in 2010 but his journey as an athlete was far from over.

He was approached by officials from the National Paralympic Committee of Indonesia to make the switch to para-sports.

A singles bronze at the 2010 Asian Para Games and a conversation with his friend and fellow para paddler Koh Zhi Liang, a Paralympian from Malaysia, convinced Jacobs to pursue a new goal.

Representing his country at the Olympics had been his childhood dream and, while that path ended, the Paralympics was an attractive alternative.

Within a year, he had improved his Para Table Tennis world ranking from 40th to 11th, thereby booking his spot as one of the top-16 players for the 2012 London Paralympics. His bronze at the ExCeL Exhibition Centre left him in tears but also wanting more.

Another medal - possibly gold - next year in Rio is within sight for the world No. 2 who is a nominee for this year's ITTF Male Star Para Table Tennis Player of the Year.

Jacobs, with two golds (team and doubles) so far at the ASEAN Para Games, will be the favourite to win the singles too tonight before flying to Lisbon for the gala ceremony.

Regardless of the verdict, he will return home to his wife and two sons assured of something more valuable than another shiny trophy.

Said Jacobs, who once played a friendly match against former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono: "I never stopped believing in myself.

"That's what it takes to get where you want to go."

This article was first published on December 8, 2015.
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