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She has triumphed on global stages and is a four-time Asian champion.
But in all her 20 years of bodybuilding, Joan Liew has never once been acknowledged by the Singapore Sports Council (SSC).
“I hear about sports excellence all the time, but I’ve never received a single cent from the government in my pursuit of this sport,” said the 38-year-old. “The SSC know who I am. I get a fair share of coverage. I’m not even asking for money, though financial support would be good of course.”
Liew added that while fans encourage her with their best wishes and kind words, she gets none of that sort from SSC.
“I’d appreciate some form of congratulatory message. I’m putting Singapore’s name on the international scene, at the highest level of competition. A simple message would do,” she told Yahoo.
The 1.67m-tall, 66kg Liew admitted that her case isn’t helped by the “messy” state of Singapore bodybuilding’s National Sports Association (NSA), or now the lack of a national body for the sport. The federation was delisted by SSC last year after a series of doping controversies.
But Liew hasn’t let such setbacks interfere with her single-minded target: to keep training and keep winning for Singapore.
At her latest tournament in February, Liew beat out 23 competitors from 13 countries to be crowned winner of the Arnold's Amateur International Bodybuilding Women's Physique (tall category) held in the US. She was the only Asian in the field.
“I went there with the intention to win,” she said. “I came in second last year and missed out by one point, so I changed my training and fine-tuned my weaknesses. Every year, it doesn’t get any easier.”
Liew also reflected how, when she first went to the States in 2010 to watch the Arnold’s, it seemed “impossible” to win anything.
“I was really impressed. How can I ever look at them? I realised I had a lot more work to do… (but) I knew I had to compete there someday,” she said.
‘In my blood’
The love for bodybuilding is “in her blood”, said Liew, who trains up to twice a day, every day except Sunday.
It all began when she was nine and wandered into a gym at her friend’s condominium. After attempting a lat pulldown or two, she took to reading up on fitness and in secondary school came across a female bodybuilder on the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine.
“I want to be like that” was Liew’s immediate response to herself.
After her GCE ‘O’ levels, she considered starting out in bodybuilding and even based her choice of junior college on the quality of its gym facilities.
Liew became a fitness instructor at Catholic Junior College and it was here that she began training in the gym regularly.
And although she was later accepted into the Faculty of Science at National University of Singapore, she even decided to do a Sports and Wellness Management diploma at Nanyang Polytechnic instead.
It was also around then that Liew joined the now-defunct Bronx gym in Boat Quay, where she ran into Asian bodybuilding champion Augustine Lee.
She asked Lee, 59, to coach her and was initially rejected, but after witnessing her commitment to training, he finally agreed.
It took seven years of hard work under Lee before Liew burst onto the Asian bodybuilding scene and won a gold medal on her debut, at the Asian Women's Bodybuilding Championship in 2000.
She continued competing for the next few years before leaving her job at California Fitness in 2005, to co-found the Fitness Factory gym in Boat Quay together with Lee.
For the heavily-muscled Liew, receiving stares on the streets is something she has already grown accustomed to.
When she first started, someone told her: “You have such a pretty face, your face is going to change, and it’ll be so wasted to look like a man!”
Once, Liew was even asked if she was a man or woman.
“It’s insulting that ugliness is associated with female bodybuilders,” said Liew, but if anything, it’s made her even more determined to train.
She admits to being a “girly girl” at heart – shopping, manicures, pedicures and trips to the hair salon are all regular fare for her.
Liew, who is single, said she might take a break from competing to have kids someday.
For now, though, she continues to battle against the lack of knowledge and opportunities for female bodybuilders, while hoping to bring more publicity and recognition to her sport.
Click the photo below to see more of Joan Liew's transformation over the years.