Resurgent Rachel Choong expressed her delight at a medal-laden return to the international arena in Bahrain as she continues to make up for lost time.
The 28-year-old had not played a tournament since scooping her ninth and tenth World Championship gold medals in Basel three years ago but picked up where she left off, teaming up with Jack Shephard to win mixed doubles gold and also taking home silver in the women’s singles at last week’s Bahrain International.
Now part of the full-time programme due to her SH6 category being included in the Paris 2024 schedule, Choong is already reaping the rewards and hopes there will be plenty more success to come across a packed year.
“Being away from tournaments for three years now, I felt very nervous going into it but the coaches assured me there was no pressure or expectation heading into it, which settled me down,” she said.
“Once I was there, it was really good being back in the atmosphere of it all and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
“I’m made up with the medals and just knowing I can still compete at that level after being away for so long. I couldn’t have asked for any more.”
Choong navigated her way past Sapuna Subba and Yasmina Eissa in the singles before coming unstuck against India’s Nithya Sre Sumathy Sivan in the final, going down 21-15, 21-15.
She had been due to play alongside Krysten Coombs in the mixed doubles but the Paralympic bronze medallist’s late withdrawal following a positive Covid-19 test saw Shephard step up to the plate.
And the pair gelled instantly, topping Group B courtesy of two emphatic victories to set up a quarter-final with teammate Isaak Dalglish, playing alongside Egyptian Eissa.
Shephard and Choong progressed in straight sets before repeating the trick in the semi-final and final to secure the top step of the podium.
“I was really happy that even with a last-minute change, we were able to win gold,” Choong said.
“We haven’t decided who I’m playing with long-term, Jack or Krysten, so back home I’m training with both of them and it’s going really well.
“I’m lucky they’re both really strong, competitive, determined players and I feel very fortunate to be in this position where I could partner either of them and know we could do well in tournament situations.”
Choong admitted she is still coping with the ‘tough’ switch of intensity since joining the full-time programme but has not taken a backward step so far and continues to relish the challenge.
“I knew they worked hard over there but you don’t really realise how hard until you experience it yourself,” she said.
“Prior to joining the programme, I was only training once a week so it’s something I’m not used to but I’m getting there, I can feel myself getting fitter and stronger.
“I was a bit worried I’d be bored of playing badminton all day every day but I love it!”
Choong was not the only success story in Bahrain, with Shephard also returning with two medals to his name after backing up mixed doubles gold with silver in the men’s SH6 singles.
Entering at the quarter-final stage, successive victories took Shephard into the final against China’s Paralympic silver medallist Chu Man Kai.
Shephard triumphed in the group stage meeting between the two in Tokyo but the roles were reversed in Bahrain as Chu came through 21-19, 21-17.
Dan Bethell was also a finalist, in the men’s SL3 singles, but withdrew from a rematch of the Paralympic final against Pramod Bhagat due to an injury sustained earlier in the competition.
Dalglish fell in the last 16 in his SH6 men’s singles quest, beaten in straight sets by France’s Charles Noakes.
The squad are next in international action in Canada in a fortnight’s time, while several players will be in Kent this weekend for a new para badminton tournament.