Singapore's top Ironman triathlete broke her legs, then made world championship a year later

First establishing herself in the world of cars and motorsports, Cheryl Tay is a keen photojournalist who is equally enthusiastic about fitness and sports. More of her at and on FacebookTwitter and Instagram (cheryltay11).

Photo by Cheryl Tay
Photo by Cheryl Tay

Three weeks before the 2009 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Florida, Choo Ling Er broke both her legs.

“I was out training on my bike alone at 6am when a car came out at full speed of a slip road, barrelling right into me," recalled the 27-year-old triathlete. "I broke my left femur, then the top frame of the bicycle stabbed my right kneecap and my right ankle snapped completely.”

It was a huge blow for Choo, who had qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship for the first time, after winning her age group of 18-24 years old at the Aviva IRONMAN 70.3 Singapore that year.

The Ironman 70.3 is a "half"-Ironman, where "70.3" refers to total distance in miles (113km) for a race which includes a 1.2-mile (1.9 km) swim, a 56-mile (90 km) bike ride and a 13.1-mile (21.1 km) run.

“On top of surgery for my legs, I also had a mild blood clot in my head and I cracked my tailbone, so I was in a lot of physical pain," said Choo, who holds the records for Singapore females in the Ironman 70.3 and full-Ironman with times of 4 hours 51 minutes and 11 hours 18 minutes respectively.

"But nothing was more painful than my disappointment of not being able to race."

Doctors were not optimistic about her return to racing, after diagnosing her as a “partial handicap who will not be able to fulfil the full movement of walking”.

But Choo would prove them wrong just two months later.


Photo by Cheryl Tay
Photo by Cheryl Tay

'I couldn’t stand up properly' 

Undeterred by her doctors’ words, Choo started working on her upper body once she was discharged two weeks after the accident.

She started swimming again two months later, once her wounds dried up, and even joined the Kapas Marang Swimathon in Malaysia.

Hobbling unsteadily on one foot, Choo successfully navigated the swim leg -- up until the very end where she had to get out of the water.

“I couldn’t stand up properly as my legs weren’t healed fully, so I kept getting washed back out to sea. After three attempts, I managed to fight the waves and I came in 10th in the Women’s Open,” she said.

Choo only started walking without crutches eight months after her operation, but signed up for the 2010 Ironman 70.3 Philippines anyway.

Still unable to run properly, she focused on her bike and swim training instead ahead of the race, and ended up winning her age group to qualify for the 2010 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater.

She eventually finished 21st in the world in her age group and set about working towards her next goal -- competing in a full Ironman.

That's a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and marathon 26.2-mile (42.2 km) run.

Photo by Cheryl Tay
Photo by Cheryl Tay

'If you want something, do it now'

In 2011, Choo won the Ironman Korea to qualify for a spot at the prestigious Ironman World Championship held in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii that year.

“It was really surreal being there in Kona," she admitted.

"There was a chance that I could not race again after the accident. Through this experience I learnt that you can’t always do what you want to do. Things may not always go your way, but as long as you don’t give up, you can accomplish anything you want," said Choo.

"Don’t wait for the next day or the next time; if you want something, do it now.”

She finished 17th in the world in her age group, but was determined to return to Kona better-prepared to race.

The next two years saw Choo shift to the tougher, more competitive 25-29-year-old age group, where she had to be content with top-three finishes.

But at the end of 2014, she finally won the Ironman Malaysia to earn her return ticket to the Ironman World Championship in Kona this year.

“I am thrilled that I finally qualified again; I’m the only Singaporean to date to have qualified twice for the Ironman World Championship in Kona," said Choo.

"Now that I’ve had experience and I know what to expect there, I will be training very hard for the race which will be in October."

Photo courtesy of Joyce Chang
Photo courtesy of Joyce Chang

'Don’t ever think of giving up'

Choo now clocks about 25 hours of twice-daily training every week, across the three disciplines of swim-bike-run.

Determined to excel at the Ironman World Championship, she hired a coach and left her job at a sports retail store to focus fully on her preparations.

Participating in an Ironman race can cost between S$4,000 to S$8,000, depending on the venue, and Choo is grateful to be backed by sponsors SmileAsia, Specialized Bicycles Asia Pacific, RocktapeSG, KeyPower International, 2XU and Newton Running.

Such endorsements are not easy to come by and once, a top local F&B company rejected her outright because they deemed her as “handicapped”.

“After the adversity I’ve been through, I am now very motivated to do my best and I am grateful to all the support I’m given," said Choo.

"I wake up early every morning before the sun is up and I’m excited to go for training. I follow my programme to a tee and make sure that every session is perfect."

"Make no excuses and don’t ever think of giving up, even if it’s just training. You just need to give up once and you will start giving up more."

Photo by Cheryl Tay
Photo by Cheryl Tay
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