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Road to Paris 2024: Open-heart surgery won’t slow down track star Awang

Popular keirin speedster is battling back from heart surgery with an eye on winning Malaysia's first Olympic gold medal.

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Azizulhasni Awang vows nothing is going to stop him from chasing his dream of striking gold at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

Not even open-heart surgery.

The Malaysian track star is back in action at the UCI Track Champions League series this month after undergoing heart surgery in April in Australia. He competed in the past two events, and is optimistic he’ll be back in top gear for the 2024 Games.

“The pain is still there, but as long as on the inside everything is good, I want to keep doing what I love,” Awang told Eurosport.

“I want to qualify for the next Olympics in Paris, and I want to fight for the gold for my country. I am here today and I am back to racing. I am very excited to be here.”

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Known as the “Pocket Rocketman,” Awang, 34, is a popular figure on the elite men’s sprint events on the boards. He’s a keirin world champion, and won a bronze medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and silver in Tokyo also in the keirin.

Yet Awang, who is based in Melbourne, Australia, went in for a checkup after he kept feeling an unnatural pain in his chest in February.

“There was something abnormal with my heart since I was born, and my doctor was surprised because I have been competing at the highest level, the elite level, for a long time with no issues,” he said.

“When I went for my scan, the surgeon asked me to do the surgery as soon as possible, so it was a big moment for me. I was so down at times, but I was so lucky because I had a good surgeon and a good team that helped me to go through that process.”

Awang said he underwent corrective heart surgery for an anomalous aortic origin of the right coronary artery in April, with heart surgeon Dr. Aubrey Almeida at the Epworth Richmond Hospital in Melbourne on April 21.

The procedure took three hours, and Awang was discharged from the hospital on April 26, according to media reports.

Awang posted photos on his Instagram account outlining his recovery.

“I had a coronary artery anomaly, a rare condition that affects one percent of the population. It is not caused by (physical) activity and diet. It is a birth defect,” Awang told the New Strait Times. “It tends to get worse with age, and I had felt it during the 2019-2020 period when I was preparing for the Tokyo Olympics.”

While Awang is back for the UCI Track Champions League series, he was forced to miss the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in 2022. He is still hopeful of earning qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games set for Paris in what would be his fifth Olympic Games.

A two-time Olympic medalist, Awang wants to win Malaysia’s first Olympic gold medal in any sport.

“I won a bronze medal in Rio and then a silver medal in Tokyo,” Awang said. “My dream is to win the first gold medal for my country, Malaysia. We have never had anyone win a gold medal so far at the Olympic level, so my job is to keep training harder and pushing harder.

“I think my mission to compete in Paris is still very much on the cards.”