Clad in a casual body-hugging T-shirt, Azizul cheerfully addressed a group of Malaysian journalists, speaking with a slight Australian accent.
There was certainly a notable change in style and demeanour. The lad from Dungun had transformed from a shy kampung boy to a confident young man with a relatively good command of English.
But other than that, Azizul seems to be the same person he was when he moved his training base to Melbourne three years ago in pursuit for Olympic glory – humble and down to earth.
That Sunday, Azizul had travelled north to Sydney for his induction into Visa’s exclusive team of world class athletes, joining the ranks of record gold-medal winning swimmer Michael Phelps, pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva and shot putter Valerie Adams.
The three-time World Cup keirin champion’s inclusion in Team Visa was a timely boost just weeks before the London Olympics and Azizul was, naturally, appreciative of the honour.
The closed door ceremony to recognise and acknowledge Azizul’s achievements in the world of cycling, which epitomised his rags to riches story, took about 45 minutes inside the velodrome.
Azizul, who was once thrown out of the elite Bukit Jalil Sports School (BJSS) for indiscipline before mending his ways, said he had made many scarifices since moving to Australia but it was all worth it.
“I’m still the same simple person – but, maybe, more determined than ever to succeed. I have adapted to the lifestyle here but I haven’t changed as a person. You can ask my wife,” said Azizul.
Azizul’s wife Athiah Ilyana Abdul Samat has joined him in Australia and they are expecting their first child.
“To achieve success one must sacrifice something. Since I moved to Melbourne, I have overcome many challenges and obstacles,” said Azizul, who has even deferred his degree in Sports Science at the University of Victoria to focus on the Olympic Games.
“The cold weather has been one big challenge for me. In Melbourne, right now, I have to train early in the morning. Imagine going out when the temperature is minus 5. I dread to get up but I force myself out of bed. Once the adrenalin starts pumping, the rest becomes easy.”
His training routine is painfully monotonous, but Azizul has never let boredom set in. The training programme is divided over two sessions – one in the morning from 6.30am-9.00am and another in the afternoon from 1pm-4pm.
“The training is tough and I occasionally just want to get home and rest and watch some movies,” said Azizul, who sometimes drives or jumps on a scooter for his training sessions.
“Once a week, I enjoy good home cooked food but most times I’m particular about what I eat as I need to maintain my body weight. I have put on four kilogrammes now but it is all muscles so it’s good.”
Things are certainly looking rosy for Azizul but, almost a year ago, his Olympic dream was almost in tatters following a nasty injury he suffered at the Track World Cup in Manchester.
He was involved in a high speed crash that resulted in a 20cm splinter spearing his calf, but the Dungun boy picked up his bike and wobbled his way to finish third to maintain his overall lead as the world champion. That won him the admiration and respect of his peers and the Malaysian public.
When things get tough, Azizul said that painful incident reminded him of his ambition to conquer the world in cycling.
“The most difficult time was the recovery period after the injury. I had to start from scratch to build myself physically and emotionally but, fortunately, my coach (John Beasley) gave me the space and time to recover,” he said.
“I used to train seven days a week but after the injury, I alternate my training with good rest.
“I have trained hard over the last few months pushing myself beyond the barriers. My mission in the Olympics is to win a gold medal.
“Of course, England’s Olympic champion Chris Hoy stands in the way and there are several other good riders too. The Games bring the best out in everyone to push beyond the limits. I hope I will surprise everyone.”
For Azizul, his cycling ambition is not only about winning a gold at the London Games.
“I’m looking beyond that. I want to win many more titles and accolades over the next few years. I want to take Malaysian cycling to greater heights. Nicol David in squash and Lee Chong Wei in badminton have proved that Malaysians can make it big in sports. I would like to show that cycling can also become a big money earning sport in our country.”
On his advice for youngsters, Azizul, who has taken part in many charity races, said: “Cycling is for everyone. One doesn’t have to buy an expensive, or the lightest bike to take it up as a sport.
“One can start with just a simple bicycle and evolve over time. What is more important is the passion and perseverance to pedal through any hardship,” said Azizul, who started with a bicycle given to him by his late father for his good results in the PMR exam.
If Azizul’s determination is anything to go by, he may well deliver Malaysia’s first ever Olympic gold in London.