SINGAPORE — Sport at an elite level, in a way, is about second chances. How an athlete deals with initial setbacks and defeats to seize a second chance at glory often defines sporting success.
For Constance Lien, her second chance at sporting success – in a completely different sport than her first – forms a huge contrast to her initial setbacks.
From being unable to make the SEA Games cut in swimming as recently as 2015, to becoming a world champion in the martial art of jiu-jitsu in May this year, it has certainly been a roller-coaster ride of emotions for the 20-year-old.
Ambition to help athletes manage emotional, mental health
Even as she prepares to finally make her SEA Games bow in the Philippines, she is already planning ahead beyond her sporting career. Drawing from her own experiences, she wants to start a movement to help other athletes better manage their emotional and mental health.
“I would like to become a sports psychologist or counsellor. This is a very important cause that I hold very dear to my heart, because I have been one of those victims in terms of mental, emotional health,” Lien told Yahoo News Singapore in an interview at the Evolve Mixed Martial Arts Academy, where she is training for the upcoming Games.
“When I was a swimmer, I had a lot of trials in terms of body-image issues. I was obviously a teenage girl who was insecure about her own body. That kind of messes with your head.
“Even if you are passionate about the sport, they are bound to be times when you don't perform well, and that's when the environment that you're in, who you surround yourself with, become so important. I’m very thankful that now I have coaches, teammates and parents that care for me.
“Jiu-jitsu taught me how to be proud of myself, and really, I felt that it saved my life. I grew a lot doing jiujitsu, because it taught me so much about myself – strength, confidence and all that.”
Conquered confidence issues, eating disorder
Those were emotionally-hefty words to come from a young woman, but Lien has already been through enough ups and downs to emerge as a strong-willed athlete determined to make the most of her second chance, and subsequently give back to the sporting community.
Her current success in jiu-jitsu – which included a silver medal at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, the first-ever medal won in the sport by a Singaporean – is a far cry from when she battled confidence issues and eating disorder when she was an aspiring swimmer.
Despite her struggles, she still believes she learnt valuable lessons from her first sport that eventually benefitted her jiu-jitsu career.
“Two things that I took away from swimming would be discipline and focus. I was from Singapore Sports School, and had to stay in the dormitories during our school terms. So we are always constantly trained to plan our schedules and follow a very strict regime,” she said.
“And I think that gave me what I need to plan my trainings for jiu-jitsu, knowing how much work and time I have to put in to be the best in the sport.”
Despite being focused and passionate about swimming, Lien found it hard to break into the national swimming squad, and subsequent saw her swim times stagnate. In her lowest moments, she struggled with eating disorder as she tried losing weight in a bid to lower her swim times.
Support from parents, friends, coach, teammates
All this took a toll on her mental health, and she finally decided to take an extended break from swimming in 2015. Eventually she signed up for a muay thai course with her friends at Evolve MMA and progressed to jiu-jitsu, where she became good enough to compete within the same year she started.
Still, there were obstacles to overcome. “Swimming’s like a non-contact sport, so switching to a contact sport, it was like two different worlds,” Lien recalled.
“It was also hard for my mother (former national swimmer Yuen Shuang Ching). I’m a daughter after all, and she couldn’t bear to watch me fight even though she went to the Asian Games in Jakarta to support me.
“But once she saw how passionate I was in jiu-jitsu, I think she understood why I had to go away from swimming, and she gave her support. I’m very, very thankful that she is so understanding.”
And so her sporting career, in a roundabout way after her world and Asian triumphs, has finally reached the SEA Games, where she will be one of the favourites to win gold in her sport.
Inspiring her peers with her work ethic
Her triumphs have already inspired her fellow athletes at Evolve Academy, with some of them also heading to the SEA Games with her.
“I am very honoured and excited for this event. I aim to win gold in SEA Games,” said Noah Lim, 17, who is taking part in the jiu-jitsu competition with his elder brother Paul.
Both credit Lien as an example to follow in being top athletes. Paul, 21, said that she has good work ethic, while Noah said she works harder than most people.
While Lien admits that her own expectations have increased after her success, she believes that she is in a far better mental state to deal with the pressures of her sport.
“Just like any athlete, I have moments where it gets too tight or too intense to deal with,” she said.
“But I'm very thankful to have teammates who always keep me going and motivate me to train harder. And my coach too, he always checks in on me to see how I'm feeling mentally, emotionally. I’m grateful for the support system.
“I’m enjoying life right now, and I hope to eventually use the exposure and publicity I get for my sport to give back to the community.”