Rafiq Ismail leads the national contingent at the opening of the Sea Games on Friday. PIC BY OSMAN ADNAN

NATIONAL bowler Rafiq Ismail knows the importance of being the country’s flag-bearer during the Philippines Sea Games opening ceremony on Saturday.

Not only was it a dream come true for him, he also knew it meant having the added responsibility of making an impression at the biennial Games to motivate the rest of the Malaysian contingent.

That’s why he’s so focused on making an impact in his third Sea Games outing at Coronado Lanes, Starmall EDSA in Mandaluyong City today.

This year’s edition offers nine gold medals — in men and women’s singles, doubles, team, masters; and mixed doubles.

“It was a proud moment for me to carry the Malaysian flag during the opening ceremony. I’m motivated to shine here,” said reigning world singles champion Rafiq yesterday.

Although he has won world and Asian-level titles, the KL-born does not want to put any pressure on himself by setting a tough target, saying he’d be delighted to return with one gold from the four events (singles, doubles, team and mixed doubles) he’s been entered for.

“For Malaysia, we always aim for the team gold in multi-sports Games. I hope to lead my squad to victory in Manila.

“Anything more than one gold will be a bonus for me. I don’t want to put added pressure on myself and I want to remain focused on this mission,” said the 22-year-old, adding that the presence of national woman bowler Shalin Zulkifli is just the tonic they will need to perform well in the Games.

“Shalin is our icon and she is among the reasons why I decided to make bowling a career.

“She is only three gold away from breaking swimmer Nurul Huda Abdullah’s 22-gold haul and becoming Malaysia’s most successful Sea Games athlete.

“She has always been a person with a strong character and her presence will surely boost our squad. We will also try to motivate her in the bid to break Nurul’s record.”

Rafiq made a memorable debut in the 2015 Singapore edition by winning three gold and one silver. He followed that up with another two gold and one silver in KL two years ago.

Rafiq’s most memorable outing this year was winning the European Masters in Spain in April. He also won the trios gold at the Asian Championships in Kuwait.

The other members of the Sea Games bowling squad are Timmy Tan, Ahmad Muaz Fishol, Tun Hakim Tun Hasnul Azam (men); Esther Cheah, Siti Safiyah Amirah Abdul Rahman and Sin Li Jane (women).

Malaysia, who won the overall Asian title in October, have a good record in the Sea Games, having emerged as overall champions in seven of the last eight editions since the Jakarta 1997.

Malaysia dominated the 1997 edition with a 5-5-6 haul, followed by a record-breaking 7-6-2 in Brunei (1999); 7-4-5 in KL (2001); 4-3-6 in Korat (2007); 5-3-6 in Jakarta (2011); 5-1-4 in Singapore (2015); and 7-4-3 in Kuala Lumpur.

Today’s competition opens with the men and women’s singles over six games on medium oil.

“I hope to record a high score. After testing the lanes today, I feel it will be a high-scoring affair. I will need to quickly adapt to the oiling pattern,” said Rafiq, who is the two-time defending champion in singles.