PETALING JAYA: In 1989, a lean, leggy Samson Vallabouy produced a run for the ages in the 800 metres at the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games.
Tough, both physically and mentally, he stretched his sinews to grab gold, setting a record so supreme it remains unbroken after 34 years.
His time, 1:48.29, endures as instant shorthand for Malaysian and regional middle-distance running excellence.
Even now, in the era of super spikes and faster tracks, no athlete in Southeast Asia has gone quicker.
In the 800m final at the Phnom Penh SEA Games yesterday, the winner, Cambodian Chhun Bunthorn, clocked a slow 1:52.92, prompting Vallabouy to ponder, “will the record ever be broken?”
Vallabouy, 57, was at the games to cheer on his US-based daughter Shereen in the 400m, and in the hope that his 800m mark would fall.
The 800m had been a must-watch for him, and it was the seventh time he was back as a spectator at the biennial meet since an injury forced him to put away his spikes in 1991.
However, he had to return to Ipoh before yesterday’s final with his Olympian wife Josephine Mary and their eldest daughter, Jocelyn, following the death of his 86-year-old mother.
He said his mother, Rajammah, a former school teacher and physical education instructor at St Philomena School in Silibin, Ipoh. was a great supporter of athletics.
Vallabouy took to serious middle-distance running at 16. “It suddenly happened after I began winning the 800m and 1500m at the ACS sports meets, with little training.”
Later, he became a showpony of regional athletics, with a certain cunning that left his opponents in a daze.
As a 23-year-old bank employee, Vallabouy destroyed an elite field at the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games. Amazingly, he was not a full-time athlete then.
He recalled his long, muscular stride carried him with ferocious pace along two laps of the track, finally powerfully kicking around the final bend.
Merdeka Stadium erupted into wild celebrations as he outsmarted the then record holder and two-time Olympian Isidro del Prado of the Philippines who took silver (1:49.34) and teammate R Haridas (1:49.50) to third place.
Newspapers rolled out praises about the way he ran, about his unbelievable talent, and about him ranking alongside the great B Rajkumar, who still holds the national record of 1:47.37 set during the 1985 Jakarta Asian Games.
It was a glorious outing for Vallabouy who later together with Hamdi Jaafar, Kenny Martin and Nordin Jadi won the 400m relay in 3:10.17.
A gold medal for him was a foregone conclusion two years later in Manila where he won the 800m in 1:48.86 ahead of Tun Win Thein of Myanmar (1:50.61) and Malaysia’s R Thangavelu (1:50.89).
Gold and records run in the family
The Vallabouys are a multiple-medal breed, products of super coach K Jayabalan’s Panthers Athletics Club, blessed with athletic distinction.
The Ipoh family’s SEA Games gold medal count stands at eight – Samson (three), Josephine (four in 400m, 800m and 4×400 relay across six meets from 1983-1993), and the recent one from Shereen in the 400m.
Shereen, a final-year student at Winona State University in Minnesota, could add another gold to adorn the family mantelpiece today in the 4x400m relay.
It looks unlikely that the records they hold will be rewritten anytime soon.
Apart from his SEA Games 800m record, Vallabouy was a member of the 4x400m relay team, together with Azhar Hashim, Yazid Parlan and Nordin Jadi, who set a national record of 3:06.53 at the Asian track and field (ATF) championships in 1991.
Josephine still holds the national 800m record set 37 years ago at the Seoul Asian Games, where she won bronze in a time of 2:07.44 as a 19-year-old.
The mark is the longest women’s unbroken record in Malaysian athletics.
The 4x400m relay national record of 3:35.83, registered at the 1993 SEA Games in Singapore, also belongs to her, G Shanti, R Shanti and the late Rabia Abdul Salam
She also set the 400m Malaysian record of 52.65 at the 1989 SEA Games, which was bettered by Rabia (52.56) in 1993, and then by Shereen (51.8) in the US last month.
Said Vallabouy: “Records are meant to be broken, and with the advances in sports science, and advancing training techniques, I hope my records and that of my wife do not last too long.
“I, however, want Shereen to continue breaking her own record.”