S’porean overcomes odds to become sports champion and fitness expert

Ian Tan came a long way to get to where he is now (Yahoo Photo)
Ian Tan came a long way to get to where he is now (Yahoo Photo)

At 26 years old, Ian Tan is a gym owner, internationally-certified fitness specialist, kettlebell champion and coach, as well as a former muay Thai professional and instructor.

And the Singaporean wouldn’t have achieved any of that if he hadn’t been an insecure teenager fending for himself in a foreign land.

In conversation with Yahoo! Singapore earlier this month, Tan revealed how an early exercise in vanity paved the road to enlightenment and success at his age, and made him the holistic sportsman he is today.

Tan was 17 when he flew alone to the United States to enroll in California’s Santa Clara University. In the company of larger-sized Caucasian schoolmates, he instantly felt “small”.

“I wanted to be bigger so people wouldn’t mess with me,” said Tan, his calm, measured manner belying a fresh-faced exterior. “For a year or two, I didn’t care about anything except how I looked.”

Tan in his first year in the United States (Facebook Photo)
Tan in his first year in the United States (Facebook Photo)

So Tan, who was born with his spine abnormally curved, started carrying weights – but absent thought or preparation, like many adolescent boys of our time.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he admitted. “I was just lifting hard and heavy, thinking that was the only way to get fit.”

The turning point was a shoulder injury that he never fully recovered from. Around this time, Tan also started casually training with two mixed martial artists (MMA) in his university, who suggested that he visit Thailand to learn muay Thai.

‘Body as machine’

Tan, who was increasingly besotted with martial arts, wasted little time. He collected his psychology degree in the middle of 2007 and swiftly made his way to Rawai beach, south of Phuket Island.

“It wasn’t a holiday,” he declared. “My whole time was spent… fighting.”

During a four-month stint, Tan lived and breathed muay Thai for six to seven hours a day, six times a week. He was knocked and moulded into “the best shape” of his life, and went on to fight in his first professional bout.

A fighting fit Tan during his muay Thai days (Facebook Photo)
A fighting fit Tan during his muay Thai days (Facebook Photo)

Then National Service came calling, in 2008. Between the responsibilities of a soldier deemed unfit (he was given the lowest grade of 'E' because of a chronic kidney condition), he found the time to enter his second pro fight. It would be his last.

A huge factor was his old shoulder injury, which was getting more serious than ever.

“12 full dislocations, hundreds of partial dislocations,” he described. “The shoulder would slip out during training; I would pop it back in and keep going.”

Determined to “fix it once and for all”, Tan finally went under the knife in 2010, emerging with four screws inside his right shoulder as permanent keepsakes of foolish days gone by.

While attending physiotherapy, the Catholic High School old boy researched for ways to better rehabilitate, and it was then that his past experiences and martial arts involvement combined to the effect of a personal fitness epiphany.

“Training the body as a machine,” the 1.75-metre tall, 68-kg Tan stressed. “Not with machines.”

“It doesn’t matter how much you can bench press. It doesn’t matter how much you can curl. What real life value does that have?” he said.

Instead of focusing on individual body parts, he had come to appreciate the concept of the body as one single functioning unit, Tan added.

Keep it simple

Armed with said philosophy (and the need for a fulltime job), he studied and attained a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) accreditation from the US-based National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

Tan’s subsequent search for a mentor led him to John Wild Buckley of the Orange Kettlebell Club in San Francisco. Over three months, Buckley showed Tan how to run a gym – and also introduced him to competitive kettlebell lifting, which involves hoisting a cast-iron weight continuously for sets of 10 minutes or more.

For some, the sheer repetition of kettlebell lifting is boring to watch, but that’s exactly what stoked Tan’s growing passion.

“Hooked on” its mind-numbing “efficiency”, he became proficient at the sport. Tan represented Singapore at the European Championships in Russia last year, and a month later clinched top honours in his category at a Hong Kong tournament.

Tan working the kettlebells en route to victory (Ritual Photo)
Tan working the kettlebells en route to victory (Ritual Photo)

But above and beyond the accolades were valuable lessons he had gleaned from merely participating in the sport.

“It’s not so much about how fancy your equipment is,” said Tan. “It’s about simple, essential movements.”

"Do you need to hold a dumbbell in one hand, a medicine ball in the other and strap yourself to cable pulleys, just to get strong? No,” he pointed out.

Vested with fresh perspective to refine and sharpen his philosophy with, Tan returned to Singapore in 2011 – and on the flight itself, decided it was time to put his knowledge and skills to practical use.

With the help of a $10,000-loan from his father (which he paid back in full), he opened his first gym, Thrive, in July that year. Espousing movement-based workouts using rudimentary tools, it proved a resounding success. Its schedule is so packed that Tan now refuses to take in any more clients.

“People liked that they were discovering alternative ways of training,” he said. “Versus a global gym where you feel like you’re in a factory, going from machine to machine.”

Tan at Thrive, his first success story (Courtesy of Zurina Bryant Photography)
Tan at Thrive, his first success story (Courtesy of Zurina Bryant Photography)

Rite of passage

After a year of operations, Tan teamed up with two fervent believers in his methods – pro MMA fighter Brad Robinson and TV host Oli Pettigrew – to start another gym, Ritual, a project he’s clearly proud to be part of.

“We’re the only ones in Singapore who’ve built a gym entirely around an in-and-out-in-30-minutes philosophy.”

He was referring to the amount of time members have to spend at Ritual’s North Canal Road complex: enter a personalised 20-minute workout designed by Tan himself, shower down, grab a meal-replacement drink, and you’re done.

Adamant that Ritual be seen as providing more than just a clockwork training session, Tan spoke of the gym as “a place where you learn how to use your body.”

“It’s not just about how many calories you burn, but finding out how much your body can actually help you in daily life.”

For now, theirs is a unique business model, but Tan won’t rest easy until he “brings Ritual as close to perfect” as he can.

It’s shaping up to be a busy year for him. Tan is aiming to compete again in Russia come November, and will spend some time travelling with Buckley in a bid to “up his game” in kettlebell lifting.

He’s not quite finished with martial arts, either. Tan currently coaches strength and conditioning at Fight G, and counts the MMA gym’s owner, Darren de Silva, as one of his mentors.

At the end of our interview, Tan shared a piece of wisdom from de Silva: “No matter how much success you’ve achieved, it is very important that throughout your entire life, every single day – you try to do something that humbles you.”

“If you don’t, you will forget how to be a good human being.”

It wasn’t difficult to detect the impact of these words on Ian Tan’s past and present. Exactly what shape his future will take is less obvious, but clearly, this young man has come a long way from just wanting to get bigger.

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