Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Jennifer Lee

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Jennifer Lee (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
Singapore #Fitspo of the Week Jennifer Lee is a mother of three kids (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

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: Jennifer Lee

Age: 42

Height: 1.49m

Weight: 41.5kg

Occupation: Jeweller – I make sparkly things for a living, basically I make your dreams come true.

Status: Married with three kids

Food: I eat pretty healthy most days, but I will never say no to donuts, pizza or coffee ice cream.

Exercise: Currently I am training for a few endurance races, so the load is more on the road running and cycling for the next race (clocking in about 42km a week with intervals, speed work and long runs) at the moment and less on strength training. Otherwise I’ll be doing more weight training (three times a week), trail running (two times a week) and yoga.

Q: When you were younger, were you active in sports?

A: Very much so. I grew up playing competitive sports, everything from basketball to softball and finally in high school, I found my calling in track, cross country and shockingly, dance. I represented my school in cross country and dance and travelled to compete internationally for both sports around Southeast Asia.

In a way, I'm super grateful that the sports culture was such a huge deal in school as I had so much energy. I could have seen my life go a different path if I never threw myself in after school activities. A lot of the athletics culture has shaped my life – how I operate in work, family life etc.

I grew up training early especially for cross-country and so even today, all my workouts are done in the early morning before the day starts. I have learned to stretch and warm up before any workouts because dance taught me it's important or you’ll end up pulling something. And at work, I always put the team as a priority. Just like in any team sport, the most important thing is working together towards a common goal; just having a strong communication amongst each other forges strong relationships and therefore it's easier to achieve a goal.

Jennifer made it to the New York University dance team.
Jennifer made it to the New York University dance team. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

You were really into dance in college.

Growing up in Singapore, I thought I was a decent dancer, fully confident in my ability to dance any given number and choreograph. I would always take the front row in any class or audition. I danced competitively in my high school for four years, so it was natural that when I went to college in New York, I wanted to continue dancing.

Well, let's talk about a small fish in a big pond. I barely made the New York University dance team my first year. In fact, I had zero confidence I would make it past the first day of audition as everyone seemed to have more technique and finesse. It was seriously a hit to my ego.

Nevertheless, I did make the team and was in the back row for a good year before I earned my way back to the front row. That meant I had to work harder than everyone else in the room to prove that I belonged on the team. It was seriously my first real taste of blood and sweat – I sacrificed a lot of my social life and holidays for dance studio time. It meant I missed out a lot of university life and zero social life.

My day would consist of attending my lectures in the morning, homework, homework in the library and an early dinner. Then it was dance practice for three hours every evening. If there was a basketball game on the weekend (yes we dance in the halftime during the games), we had to be there to support the team.

But I wouldn't change a thing. My eyes were set on our biggest event: qualifying for the National Dance Competition in Daytona Florida, USA (if you ever watched Cheer on Netflix – it's the same stage the dance teams would compete on). I remember when we qualified as my first year on the team, gears changed – We were training to win.

Sports in the United States operate on a totally different playing field from Singapore. Besides the gruelling hours of training we had to put in, our coaches made sure we bonded over dinners and get-togethers. Teamwork was so important, it was the glue that made us one.

At the NDA weekend, we had ESPN covering our competitions with over 30,000 people in the audience screaming and cheering us on. It was broadcasted on the ESPN sports channel nationwide. It was an insane experience. Seriously the highlight of being part of a Division 2 team. The adrenaline rush and energy vibrate throughout the arena!

What did you get into as you got older?

When I left university and landed my first job in finance (I lived in New York for 10 years), I stopped dancing altogether. I think I was burnt out and ready to move on. So as a de-stressor from work, I would run. I would run from 14th Street all the way to Central Park and back to 14th Street (that is about 12 to 14 km) and the crazy thing was my goal was find the quickest way through the streets of Manhattan by trying to beat the traffic lights using the streets and avenues.

You're now into trail running. How did you get into it?

Although I'm a city girl, I love nature. Besides trying to beat the traffic lights in the city, I also started rock climbing on the weekends in the Appalachian mountains and upstate NY in the Gunks. I think that’s where my love for nature really started. But I wouldn't run trails till I got back to Singapore.

Partly, I realised that city life got to me and I needed “space” for myself. Even though I thrive on the energy of people around me as I'm an extrovert, I find myself looking forward to those solo trail runs in MacRitchie. A good trail day is when I see nobody on the trails.

Jennifer is now into trail running, after becoming a mother of three.
Jennifer is now into trail running, after becoming a mother of three. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

So fast forward to three kids later, I wanted to do something with trail running, and in 2015, Spartan Race came to Singapore. I got into it and was doing obstacle course racing till 2019 until COVID-19 shut it down. I love that it's a sport where you can’t just be a runner. You also need strength, agility and most of all, grit. There was one race, I literally did 120 burpees as a penalty for missing four obstacles and still made Top 10. But also, another race I did only 60 burpees but didn’t make it to Top 10 Elites.

Why trail over road?

To be honest, being on the trails helps me focus and de-stress. I run my own business so I'm always stressed out. And on the trails, because I have to focus on where my foot placement is due to the changing terrain and elevation, it allows me to “check out” of work for a bit. It calms me as I am ultra focused on one thing only – not twisting an ankle.

Trail over road… because with road, my focus changes to training mode – pace, HR, cadence. Whereas with trail, my goal is to simply catch the sunrise and not get chased by monkeys. I find that so much more satisfying. And as a long-term goal, I find that when it becomes a passion such as chasing sunrises, the running becomes effortless.

Any memorable trail running experiences?

Oh there are plenty! Once, my running buddy decided to venture into Bukit Brown Cemetery and we got caught in a massive dog drama. If you do run through one of the smaller roads, you will know there are territorial dogs guarding a specific house in the cemetery. Long story short, we were about 200m into the path when we saw one dog barking in front of us, but that didn’t stop us from running so we kept moving forward. The dog ran off… and one minute later, he brought reinforcements. I remember seeing at least 10 to 15 dogs rush towards us and of course my running buddy tells me not to run, but back away slowly.

What do I do? I turn around and ran for my life, running buddy be damned. No offence, but I didn't have to outrun all the dogs, I just had to outrun her. (Just kidding!) I tried to grab anything I could find on the ground, mostly twigs and gravel, to throw at the dogs. Failed. We made it out alive but you could tell they were protecting that area. We never ventured back that path. And nobody ever believed us.

Oh as much as I sound like I am fearless on the trails, I am the biggest wimp. I will jump at anything that moves. I guess that’s where my speed motivation comes from, it's really fear. Fear makes me run fast, like really fast. And I absolutely hate the monkeys at MacRitchie and Upper Peirce reservoirs. You don’t know how many times I have been attacked. I squeal when I see snakes. I have this high-pitched scream when I run into spiderwebs but I keep going back for more.

When you were younger, did you experience any incidents that made you feel insecure about yourself?

Yes. I’ve always had muscular legs. Or as the middle school boys would say, I had “thunder thighs”. I was so self-conscious about them that I would wear baggy jeans. Haha yes, there was a time I was into the grunge phase. It didn’t help that as a dancer, we were constantly looking and judging ourselves in the studio mirrors.

All I saw were my “thunder” thighs. I wish I saw strength and beauty in them then. But as the magazines (thank God we didn’t grow up in a social media world although times have changed and we are embracing more) suggest in those days: dancers should be skinny and slender. I wonder if that’s why I didn't pursue ballet but focused on hiphop and jazz (got to wear my baggy pants).

If I knew what I know now, I would have embraced my muscular legs as they have served me well for my races and strength training, not to mention my husband finds my quads sexy. To be honest, when I see women with defined legs, I find them impressive as I see strength and femininity embodied into one. This is a pretty important part of what I want to impart to the younger girls on social media through my Instagram posts – that there is beauty in strength, and it gives you confidence which translates to sexy and beautiful.

Jennifer battled confidence issues while auditioning for her university dance team.
Jennifer battled confidence issues while auditioning for her university dance team. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

When did you feel the least confident about yourself?

As a dancer on the competition team for my university. I thought when I left for college and tried out for the team it would be a no brainer. I was so wrong. I barely made it through the first day of tryouts for the New York University dance team. I knew they were a Division 2 dance team which means they were pretty good but holy heck, the dancers were all top of their game. Most first years at the dance tryouts (about 300) were all American dancers with impressive credentials. Their technique was far beyond what I was ever taught.

I knew then and there I was the small fish fighting to breath in a big pond. I went home that night completely drained and depleted of any confidence. I had no confidence I was going to make it. It was hard to take it as I was the top of my dance team in Singapore. It was definitely a hard hit to the ego. But after three days of tryouts, I did find my name on the list. I had made it on the team with another eight girls. Then the real battle begins, to prove my spot on the team.

When you want something so bad, you will work and fight for it. I remember I knew what I had to do. I sat down with the dance coach and told her I wanted to make the first line (I was in the back in most dance numbers for the halftime show). So I put in the work, first one in the dance studio and last one out. First one in the gym on Saturday mornings and last one out. I sacrificed so many weekends out with my friends to finish off my homework and papers so I could focus on dance practice. I still follow the same mantra – “Trust the process”. Sound mind, sound body. I still do it for my races. If I know I want to podium for a certain race, I can focus on the end goal. Whether or not I get a podium, at least I know where I want to go).

Did you ever struggle with your body?

Not really. I was pretty well aware of the eating disorders that were pretty prevalent in our sport, especially in dance. How can you not when you are constantly judging yourself in the mirror with the other dancers. I think it’s so important to have a good supportive team and friendships to help build confidence. Knowing that my family is always there for me and loves me allows me to concentrate on what I felt was important. I never felt I had to change for anyone.

Are you satisfied with your body now?

Hell yes, especially now. Before kids, I would think, “Eh I could work a little here, maybe build on my core”. Reality sunk in when I got pregnant and went through pregnancy and birth three times over. I didn’t know how hard it was to get back to my pre-pregnancy body. In fact, I never did. I did better. I have so much more respect for mums now. I mean, after getting pregnant three times over and having natural birth three times over, I had to restart every single time to get to where I am.

I understand the hard work, the tears that came because I had lost my core and had to rebuild it after each pregnancy. To be honest, I am in the best shape I have ever been in my life, even more than when I was at the peak in my sport when I was younger.

I guess when you have gone through massive changes in your body to having to work back the strength three times over, you know what can be and the goals become so much clearer. I knew time was precious and just getting time to work out was a luxury between breastfeeding and work. Because time was precious, you learn to be more of an efficient worker in the gym.

I learned to realign my goals. Instead of saying, “I want a six-pack”, it became “I want to be stronger”. I had a long-term goal in mind: to be able to run and play with my kids. I always believe if you have a long-term goal such as catching a sunrise during a run, that run becomes a fitness routine and it’s no longer a chore. Also, with getting stronger, to do that you need to build muscles and endurance and how do you do that? A variety of exercises. Then it becomes fun.

Have you ever received any comments about your body? If you could change anything about yourself, would you?

Most of the time, they are positive. Usually about how strong I am for my petite size. I’ll take that. If I could change anything it would probably be my height. When I was doing obstacle racing, there were so many challenges that I knew if I had the height I didn’t have to work twice as hard to finish. Or in running, when I train with the taller runners, one of their strides is four times of mine. Otherwise, I'm embracing the fact I am petite and I can sit in any seat on a plane and still be able to curl up in a ball and pass out. Sorry kids, especially to my boys, you may have your mama’s short genes.

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Jennifer Lee.
Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Jennifer Lee. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)