Perhaps the highlight of 2016 for Singapore’s athletic’s scene was when our Golden Boy Joseph Schooling clinched a historic gold medal in the 100m butterfly event, beating his childhood hero Michael Phelps and bringing home glory.
Our Paralympians did well themselves, bringing home a total of three medals including the two gold medals by our Golden Girl Yip Pin Xiu in the 100m S2 backstroke and the 50m S2 backstroke events.
An athlete’s career is not easy – physically and mentally.
People might say it’s all talent, but I think becoming an athlete is more than genetics. Talent without hard work is just above average.
They spend hundreds and hundreds of hours honing their skills, techniques, and endurance.
Like Olympian gymnast Simone Biles said in reality show Dancing With The Stars,
Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals.
I can understand the utter disappointment and immense vexation athletes feel when they fail to perform at their best; or worse, when they get injured.
Suffering a shin splint at the peak of my time in Track & Field during my polytechnic days really affected me badly. I could not run with my teammates and my overall fitness decreased a lot.
Eventually, I fell into a short bout of depression and I never really felt like I could get back to my best even after I recovered.
But here’s a feel-good story of how one former elite swimmer-turned-triathlete picked himself up after developing a heart condition which brought his Olympic dreams to an abrupt halt.
Morphing From An Athlete To An Entrepreneur
Jonathan Fong (38), is the head coach, founder, and Sports Scientist of Morph Performance, a sports science and technology company providing testing services and online training solutions to endurance athletes worldwide.
But before he was all of these, he started swimming at age 10 and trained under the late Mr Kee Soon Bee.
Jonathan was an elite swimmer who represented Singapore in the 1,500m freestyle event at international competitions until he was 16-years-old.
When he was 15, he tried doing triathlons and had since fell in love with it. He received several awards from the Singapore National Olympic Council and continued to represent Singapore for the next decade.
He studied Kinesiology and discovered his passion through working with athletes as a sports scientist, then he got certified as a high performance coach with the International Triathlon Union.
As if his passion for sports is not inspiring enough, Jonathan began helping people take up endurance sport “in a bid to get healthy and challenge themselves physically”.
Over the past decade, I have trained over a thousand athletes taking part in various endurance events such as marathons, ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons all over the world. They range from complete beginners, top age groupers, and elite athletes as well.
But what made him devote his time to Morph Performance?
After pushing his body to the limits for close to two decades, Jonathan’s body broke down, causing him to miss his Olympic dream.
He developed a cardiac condition called “Atrial or Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT)“, when the heart beats unusually fast.
It happened over a period of eight days, which caused tissue damage.
According to Wikipedia, “episodes can last from a few minutes to one or two days”.
This heart condition is not uncommon amongst athletes, with Wikipedia listing down a few athletes like Rebecca Soni and Dana Vollmer, Olympic swimmers, and Bobby Julich, the road bicycle racer.
It is pretty sad and it was the lowest point in my life, especially because of all the time and effort put in to chase that dream. It did, however, open my eyes to the fact that an athlete could be ridiculously fit, but not healthy at the same time due to the amount of physical stress put on their body from hours spent training hard and fast on a daily basis. There is only so much punishment our bodies can take before they begin to break and cause serious health issues.
“It was a very dark and scary experience going from the fittest time [of] my life to being confined to a bed. When I look back at how hard I pushed myself in training and the physical stress I was under, it was no surprise that this happened.”
Jonathan took two years to recover and before he was allowed to go back to endurance training. He now has to go for regular heart screenings and make sure that he doesn’t overdo his trainings and limits when racing like before.
“While it can’t compare with other more serious physical impediments, the emotional support I got helped me deal with the situation,” he added.
His choice to pursue his studies in sports science has led him to develop his passion in another way.
In 2015, the Sydney Academy of Sport reached out to him through his previous company to collaborate on “developing the commercial arm of their sports science department, which would help them reach out to ‘everyday people'”.
How To Be An Athlete
Not everyone can be a Usain Bolt or a Michael Phelps.
But everyone is an athlete in some way.
Even though he is no longer smashing national records, he is very much still actively keeping himself, and the many others who are non-athletes, fit and healthy with his tailored training programmes.
It was through personal experiences and working with many working professionals who travelled often, had a family to look after, yet still wanted to pursue their sporting goals. Being an applied scientist and coach, I enjoyed teaching others about optimising the way they train and race.
“By making use of science and data, athletes can now improve their quality of training and in turn improve their performance without adding more stress to their bodies.”
In the Inc. Southeast Asia article, he explained that with sports science, there is “no room for guesswork” and that they can “train intelligently” using the clients’ measurements when they visit the lab.
His programme – which he took five years to develop – includes educating his clients on “developing an efficient lactate clearing system [that] improves their sports performance”.
On top of that, they get to learn how to use their fat stores efficiently to become leaner, “have better energy levels and reduce the risk of developing lifestyle diseases” such as stroke and obesity.
He said, “All this is done by following their specific heart rate zones during exercise.”
Jonathan then further explained that heart rate zones differ from people to people in an interview with Pris Chew. By focusing on using heart rate zones to train, it makes them “better long-distance athletes” because it makes the body utilise “different types of energy systems”.
Fun fact: he had an inspiration for the company’s name when he was running on a beach one day in Sydney. He wanted to “establish a company that helps people transform the way they think of training”.
Hence, the name Morph Performance.
On a philosophical level, if “mind over body” is an equation, then all of us can be athletes.
It’s just how we choose to improve on our bodies and mind.
After going through so many trials and tribulations, you’d think that setting up a business in a field he is familiar in would go swimmingly well.
Setting up a technology company within months of moving out of Singapore was a “sink or swim situation” because he had to put the development team together and start building their web app.
The responsibility of generating revenue fell on his shoulders as increasing development costs and other difficulties he encountered made it especially challenging to release new app features on time.
“Since starting in early 2016, we have seen steady growth in our paid user database and we have increased the number to testing locations to meet the growing demand for sports science services in the Asia Pacific region,” he commented on the growth so far.
The determined founder revealed that he hopes sports science labs in major cities and “millions of athletes” will use Morph Performance’s paid iOS and Android app and incorporate it in their own trainings, “taking their sports performance to the next level and beyond”.
Fortunately, I was able to gain the support from my peers in the sports science and endurance sport industry, who shared my vision and played a massive role in backing up Morph Performance. What we have achieved so far till now would not have been possible if not for the combined efforts of my family, staff, and affiliated partners.
I will wrap it up with a saying from Confucius,
“It doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
So, pace yourselves in your self-improvement quests for whatever you all aim to achieve!
Featured Image Credit: Jonathan Fong