Life goes beyond the digits on the scale and your body is capable of so much more. Yahoo’s #Fitspo of the Week series is dedicated to inspirational men and women in Singapore leading healthy and active lifestyles. Have someone to recommend? Hit Cheryl up on Instagram or Facebook.
Name: Ethel Lin Zhiyun (@ethelzylin)
Diet: The everything diet – I like salads, pastas, meats and the occasional fast food meal.
Training: Around 10 times one-to-1.5-hour sessions of swimming, cycling, running, and some strength work in the gym.
Q: You only started getting active at 17.
A: Yes, I was on the Victoria Junior College (VJC) swim team. It was a bit of a childhood dream and while it was a late start I thought it was then or never. I started in the 50m freestyle and breaststroke in my first year, then switched to 800m freestyle and 200m in my second year when we realised I was better (or less bad) at longer distances.
How did the transition from swimming to triathlon come about?
I loved swimming and competitive sport, and I also loved running back in VJC. Triathlon just seemed like a natural extension. There were some parental objections (because cycling on the road seemed dangerous to them) and I had to find money to buy a bicycle, so I worked during the time between A levels and university, saved up money to buy the bike, and just brought it home.
When did you realise you wanted to become competitive in triathlon?
I loved the sport but from the get-go, I became hooked on training to be competitive in a sport, with setting goals and working hard to achieve them. As I started late in sports, I was not very competitive in swimming and I don’t have natural speed. I realised I was better at grinding through the longer sets.
Even though I didn’t know how to ride a road bike using cleats and took over an hour to run 10km, it didn’t stop me from aspiring and wanting to work towards representing Singapore at the SEA Games.
Only getting competitive in your early adult years, what are some of the challenges you face?
It is of course hard competing against people who have put in so much work in the sport from young. There is always a bit of handicap in terms of technique, experience etc. When I started swimming or even triathlon, many said I didn’t have a chance. On the bright side it forces you to always try to overcome disadvantages and not to be limited by perceived barriers.
What are some of the highlights of your triathlon career?
Competing in the women’s individual triathlon at the SEA Games 2015 and 2019.
What are some of the lows?
It’s sort of a constant iterative process of getting better, with many ups and downs. One of the most disappointing experiences was collapsing around 1km from the line at the 2015 SEA Games, though I was also at my fittest and most competitive then. I had taken nine months off work to train full-time for the Games and it has been my dream since I was 17 to go for the SEA Games. I only made the national team after I graduated from law school in 2010.
There was no triathlon event for the SEA Games between 2007 and 2015, so when the opportunity presented itself in 2015, I went all in and wanted to give my childhood dream the best shot I could.
I had a decent swim and was in sixth place coming out of the water, caught up to fourth on the bike and then to third on the run. I do not remember the last 5km of the run to be honest (it was a 10km run). The next thing I knew I was in the ambulance with no memory of the race, and was told I had collapsed in third place about 1km or so from the line.
How did you recover, physically and emotionally, from this incident?
I felt heartbroken and disappointed that my SEA Games dream ended this way. It took some time to process everything but eventually I acknowledged that I’ve given my best efforts.
After that, I took time off competitive sport and just enjoyed sports for what it is without pressure and expectation. But it is an ongoing process of growth. When I was doing an Olympic-distance race in Subic Bay four years later, I felt myself heating up on the 10km run and for the first time in my life I was actually scared that I would collapse again. This was something I had to battle within myself while training for the 2019 SEA Games.
Was your SEA Games 2019 journey fuelled by a desire to fulfil “unfinished business”?
I wouldn’t say so. 2015 was not the most fulfilling way to complete a journey I invested so much in, but I had left everything I had out there and I am proud of my journey. I did not want 2019 to be about a “redemption” of the 2015 result so to speak. I made sure I was motivated by my love for the sport and I believed I could get back out there to create a race I was proud of.
How did the SEA Games 2019 go for you?
Well, I came in fourth. Honestly, the road to the 2019 Games was much harder. I was really busy with work and didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to prepare. I also was dealing with injuries from 2015 to 2019 and couldn’t get consistent progress in training. I even had to race with these injuries. Thus, managing to get through all these hurdles and finish the race to the best I can made my journey very meaningful.
I also raced the 2019 SEA Games with injuries. I think persevering and growing through each bump in the road to finish the race to the best of my ability was very meaningful for me.
How do you juggle work as a lawyer with high performance training?
I think one of the most important things for me has been learning to accept compromises and imperfection and being okay with it. I used to be fixated on a routine and completing everything on my training programme down to the t and get thrown off when work doesn’t allow that.
I learnt over time to focus on doing whatever you can on the day which leads better consistency and sustainability in the long run. I also used to get frustrated that I couldn’t do as much as I liked in either sport or my career, but learnt to reshape my thinking to be grateful to have each in my life and make the compromises that are needed to make them work, to the best of my limited ability.
What's next for you?
I love sport and being active. It brings a lot of joy and makes me a better and happier person all round. I will try to keep at it for as long as I can.
When did you feel the least confident about yourself?
To be honest I was a pudgy kid, love my food, and don’t feel the most confident with my body. Sports have helped me and it’s a constant process and accepting and being proud of whatever is the best version of yourself this day. I wanted to turn down this interview because I don’t feel I’m fit or lean enough, but decided to do it as part of this process and to challenge myself.
Have you ever received any comments about your body?
When I was 17 a friend told me that if only I was a little smaller I’ll be considered “small and cute”. Then as a triathlete I was told that same physique helped me generate enough power and be more competitive, especially on the bike.