A Woman Preparing to Squat in Competition

Half A Decade of Being a Competitive Powerlifter in Singapore – An Insight

Hello there. My name is Alina and it honestly feels weird for me to be writing this, speaking in first person perspective to you through the screen. If I were to make an intelligent guess, you are probably someone who is vested in the Powerlifting scene in Singapore, a friend of mine or, hey someone who might even have accidentally stumbled upon this page. Welcome to a little slice of my thoughts – you may agree or disagree with what I’m about to say (which is completely fine). After all, this experience is mine and mine alone, and you probably have a different story to tell.

“I grew up being competitive”

I have always been a competitive person, having played competitive basketball from the ages of 9 to 18 and enjoyed sport in general. That ended when I tore my meniscus and could never be the same player again. The next few years after junior college, I delved into running – two 21km races were the highlights. I believe it was only in the year 2013 that I started actively going to the University’s gym to do cardio and light dumbbell exercises, whereas the Squat, Bench press and Deadlift part which forms the backbone of Powerlifting only happened in 2014. It was also then when I met my first “fitness” and would be powerlifter friend, Wu Mengting. After watching her compete at the Singapore Powerlifting Invitationals 2014, I was hooked. It opened my world to the possibility of being competitive for what I thought were simply “exercises you do in the gym to look better”

“How Do I Become the Best in the World?”

The question above was exactly what I asked Say, founder and president of Powerlifting Singapore the night before my first overseas competition. It was the Asian championship in Uzbekistan, 2015. Having gone 95kg/40kg/100kg (SBD) at my first powerlifting meet, the Singapore Powerlifting Opens in April of that year, it was obvious becoming “the best in the World” was simply not in my future. Thinking back, I cannot believe how earnest yet naive that question was but shout out to Say for letting me down gently.

Group of Powerlifting Singapore Athletes
Team Singapore (Daniel Nobel - Clinton Lee -Christophe Ang - Derrick Kim) and Team Australia at the Asian Powerlifting Championships, Uzbekistan 2015
Picture of Athlete with Singapore Powerlifting President

Say and I after securing the bronze medal for the bench press
Probably a clue as to how this lift would eventually end up being my best out of the three

“Powerlifting is life”

Seeing the level of talent at the Asians, I was more motivated than ever. It did not help that I had not performed to the best of my abilities, having competed with a lower back injury sustained 3 weeks out (thank you Smolov). Simply put, I was obsessed. Case in point: I chose a college for my Student Exchange Program based on their powerlifting team. No regrets though, for Texas A&M had an awesome team and Texas is a great place. It was also in 2016 I got my first powerlifting coach, Jonus Ong Pang Wee – better known as Pang. He helped me overcome the lower back injury free-of-charge and programmed me through my exchange program before we formalised a coaching agreement later on in the year. I also started training at The Gym Nation (TGN) regularly. Finally having a coach and a program to follow, being in a college powerlifting team and being surrounded by the equally fuelled lifters and friends at TGN made 2016 a turning point.

Alina Choo with a Friend
At the USAPL Texas State Championships, San Antonio 2016
Between 2017 and 2019, I went on to sustain more silly injuries (not powerlifting related, of course) – torn ACL, ankle sprains, dislocated shoulder, torn labrum, lifting plateaus, changed coaches and reverted, went up a weight class, went down a weight class, graduated University and secured a full time job in Finance.
Alina's Graduation

All smiles at graduation not knowing what was about to hit me in the next few years

On the topic of changing coaches, I am always amused when people ask me with a hushed whisper – “So what happened between you and Pang?”. I would even imagine it to be discussed amongst circles then. The answer is simply: Nothing. This is testament of the great coach-athlete relationship we have and something that I truly respect him for. I am never afraid to voice out what I truly feel and voice out I do, maybe a bit too much sometimes. At that point in time after my second Asian championships in India, Dec 2017, I came back to Singapore thinking I needed to do something about my nutrition habits and it had better be before I went for job interviews in the summer. I went up a weight class to the U72kg carelessly after I came back from Texas (The phrase “Everything is bigger in Texas” did not come from nowhere) and the weight I had gained was more fat than muscle.

The right person who could help me more at that point in time was Mahavira Sng. Under his tutelage, I showed myself I could actually put into fruition what I knew. Having the knowledge to do something and actually doing it was a world apart. By now, I successfully went back down to the U63kg class at the Singapore Powerlifting Invitationals 2018 after 8 long and tough months of cutting and maintaining the weight. Interestingly enough, Pang and Maha went on to form Ronin Strength Co shortly after. With the new found resolve, I managed to do two more competitions as a U63kg lifter, the SPO 2019 and the 2019 IPF University Powerlifting Cup in Estonia before I realised this purposeful depression of weight was not sustainable in the long run.

Alina standing on podium
Silver for the bench press in the U63kg class, Tartu 2019

Admittedly, and more than I’d like to admit, through all this, I had sacrificed grades, relationships and life in one way or another in pursuit of being the best powerlifter I could be. It was definitely not ideal but as they say, hindsight is always 20/20. Interestingly enough, while tangible things like grades suffered, the intangible – social skills and confidence improved instead. The thing with Powerlifting, or being a hobbyist in any other area, is that you tend to meet people from all walks of life and these different perspectives from people young and old, Singaporean or non, has an influence on the way you think, behave and empathise. I’ve never failed an in-person job interview for example, and this transformative period gets all the credit for it.

“Or is it really?”

This question in relation to the previous is usually the part where many competitive powerlifters become simply powerlifters, or not at all. These were people I thought were my competition, people who had so much potential, people who broke into the scene with crazy numbers. So many people come and go. I’ve always wondered why, and I still don’t really know. Was it the lack of a support system from a lifting group? Was it liking the ups more than the downs? Or was it an all or nothing approach for them?

A possible answer to that that I have and am experiencing myself, started showing itself from mid-2018 when I started my career in Finance. An industry where something is always happening, the norm would be around 10 working hours a day and a short desk lunch. It was a trying time, the shift between being just a student to having actual responsibilities as an adult. I would imagine undergoing such stress would make the decision to stop easier. After all, Powerlifting does not pay the bills.

There were and still are, training days that were very very tough, days I would feel like crying and packing up, and yet there were also the weekends where training went fabulous after solid hours of sleep and days where unexpected PRs happened. This is why the saying “Discipline outweighs motivation” is one that I can get behind. Constantly showing up and learning to accept how training goes will eventually normalise a period of change. This new life will become your new normal if you stick to it long enough.

“I’m Never going to be the Best, and That is Fine”

So here we are, in 2020. I am grateful to be born in this country for I would have never gotten such a multi-dimensional experience anywhere else, for Powerlifting Singapore, for my family, friends and everyone I’ve met on this journey thus far. Having experienced being a competitive lifter both as a student and as an adult and with the rose tinted glasses off, I have learnt to accept my new reality. I will never be able to fully control aspects crucial to training, and I will place other aspects of life first. But as long as I show up, seek positive takeaways from every session, make mindful lifestyle choices and choose to be a coachable athlete, I will be the best version of what I can be – and that is good enough.

Editor’s note: Alina will be competing in the U72kg class locally whenever COVID-19 ends and is most excited about being within striking distance of a 100kg bench press having pressed 95kg 2 weeks ago. She has accepted the fact that her squat and deadlift will never be in the highlight reel and wants to earn her stripes via a bigger U72kg total before attempting to qualify for her first IPF World Powerlifting Championship. She hopes to do so in the next couple of years.