Why I Play series: Weightlifter John Cheah

“Why I Play” is a fortnightly series every Thursday showcasing the stories of people who enjoy playing sports. Want to see your sport featured? Let us know via Facebook or Twitter.

National weightlifter John Cheah used to be overweight in his early teenage years. Getting involved in dance and theatre in junior college helped him embark on a healthier lifestyle, and eventually got him dabbling with CrossFit training in 2012.

A love for graceful and precise movement naturally led him to weightlifting in 2013, and since then, John had set the Under-96kg national record with a 128kg snatch and a 156kg clean-and-jerk. Now a full-time trainer at fitness gym Level, the 27-year-old also represented Singapore at the 2017 Asian Cup in Yanggu and the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.

Q: How did you get involved in weightlifting?

A: I got involved with weightlifting at the end of 2013. I just started CrossFit and one of the national athletes, Lewis (Chua), offered to be my coach for free because he was like, “Oh you got potential. Why don’t we start training together?” So that’s how I got into weightlifting.

National weightlifter John Cheah represented Singapore at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

Which muscle groups are most involved in this sport? Which part of your body aches the most after a practice session and why?

In weightlifting, we use our quads (quadriceps muscles) and our lats (latissimus dorsi muscles) a lot. The quads and lats are the explosive muscles of the body. These two muscles form like rubber bands around the bones, and then when they snap together, the weight goes up.

Tell me the biggest misconceptions people have of weightlifting.

Weightlifting stunts your growth – that’s not true. Kids cannot do weightlifting – that’s also a myth. We actually want kids to start weightlifting when they hit puberty, because that’s when there is lot of human growth hormone that runs through the system, and that’s the same steroid that a lot of athletes take to grow. So kids have it for free and it’s legal because it’s produced by the body.

So kids should start weightlifting early. I was in China and I was talking to one of the head coaches of the local sports school, and he was like, “Anybody who starts lifting after their puberty will never be as good an athlete if they started when they hit puberty.”

John Cheah uses his quad and lat muscles to achieve the explosiveness to lift the weights. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

After competing in this sport, what has been your most memorable experience?

Definitely the Commonwealth Games. It was my first time travelling with Team Singapore and living in an Athletes’ Village. I think the whole village experience was really good because everything is just geared towards your performance. So there’s as much food as you want, there’s a free gym, there’s a massage that you can go any time of the day, there were pools everywhere. It’s like you are a king, everything you want is in place.

Everybody was focused on training or competing. So it was a very nice atmosphere because you have people whose lives revolve around sports and performance, and I think it was a very nice atmosphere to have.

Your most heartbreaking experience?

In weightlifting, you experience peaks and troughs in your training. When you are at a peak, you feel like you’re incredible – you can do anything you want, all your numbers go up. You feel amazing. But then in the troughs, you just feel like nothing is clicking, everything is stiff. Usually that lasts for about a week or two for some people, but I experienced one that lasted for about four months.

I had like four months of bad training, and I was hitting maybe like 20-30kg below my normal numbers, and even those lifts felt heavy. This was maybe about six months before the Commonwealth Games. So it was very, very scary for me because I didn’t know whether I’ll get better in time for the Commonwealth Games.

Share an inspiring story you have of a tournament or an experience with teammates or a coach that made you love this sport even more.

My coach used to compete for China, and he was telling me that every athlete will go through ups and downs in training, and that’s with anything you do too. But the good athletes just stick it out. Sometimes you just get into a funk and you’re there forever, but you need to just keep going because someday, something will click.

It’s just something that I cannot explain and at the time he told me this, I was maybe three months into this trough. I ate well, I took time off work just to train, but nothing got better.

I think it is a gradual thing – you just have to find the one thing good about today’s training, even if it’s not a number thing. It’s like, “I moved a bit better today. That’s good.” The next time you come back, you try to build on that small thing.

I think it was a combination of all these small things that got me back.

John Cheah endured through a long spell in the troughs of training without much improvement, but eventually got back on track following advice from his coach. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

Was there a time you felt like walking away from the sport? What made you stay?

Maybe in those three months. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like walking away because at the end of the day, I’m a person who needs to move. So I’ll just go to training because I like it. I like moving at the end of the day. I like the whole process of getting into a mental state to train.

Training for me is very peaceful, it’s very calming. So even if it’s a bad day of training, at least I’m in that space to train. It’s a bit like yoga and meditation, you know, and training for me is a lot like that.

What was the worst injury you have experienced from weightlifting?

Early on, I had a very bad SI joint injury. SI joint (sacroiliac joint) is at the base of the spine just above the hip. A lot of people associate it with lower back pain, but at a very specific point.

I had a very bad injury there on my left side very early on, because I was squatting wrongly. I couldn’t lie down without feeling pain. I couldn’t stand up for too long and I couldn’t sit for too long. So I just had to keep moving to get out of that pain.

What life lessons has weightlifting taught you?

You will always be dissatisfied, and living in a state of dissatisfaction is something that you must embrace. I think a lot of people look at the word “dissatisfaction” in a very negative way. Like, you must always be satisfied, you must live your best life and everything.

But you’ll never have your best life. You will always be lacking something and I think there needs to be an acceptance of that, that you are never a finished product.

I’ve been to the Commonwealth Games, and everyone’s like, “Oh my God, you can retire” or “You’re so good, you’re so good.” But I’m like, no, I’m not because you see people who are better than you, or you know things about yourself that you can improve on and that you should be working on, and that is a state of mind that you should always have.

John Cheah believes that weightlifting has taught him to be constantly dissatisfied, so as to continually improve himself in life. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

How can people get involved if they’re interested to pick up weightlifting?

There are four places that you can go to learn weightlifting. One is Level. You can go to Solitude of Strength, you can go to the Singapore Weightlifting Federation (SWF), or you can go to this place called The Forge, it’s a weightlifting gym. I think these four are run by coaches who follow a similar system, a similar structure, and these are the four places that usually send people to the National Open. So if you’re looking to start somewhere safe, I would recommend these four places.

If you want to look at training for kids, I think you need to find a coach whom you can trust with your kids. He needs to be somebody who knows his stuff. Myself and coach Lewis at SOS do this very well. SWF is starting a youth program now and I think Forge is, too. Actually all of us are trying to start with youth, by making ourselves available to youth.

Can you tell me in one sentence why you love this sport?

I love human movement, and I think weightlifting is one of the most precise and efficient ways of moving something through space. And this is why I lift.

John Cheah loves weightlifting because he believes it is one of the most precise and efficient ways of moving something through space. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)