Commonwealth Games: Nicole Heng gains confidence through weightlifting

Fast, strong, and focused, the 67 Singaporeans in nine sports competing at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham are an uncommon breed. ST looks at six athletes who are unique in their own ways – in choice of professions, personal lives or their sporting journeys. Today, we chronicle Nicole Heng’s journey from discus thrower to cheerleader to weightlifter.

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She may belong to a rare breed of national athletes but one thing weightlifter Nicole Heng has in common with many Singaporeans is that she loves the gym... so much so she has become a personal trainer.

SINGAPORE - Meal times were something national weightlifter Nicole Heng dreaded when she was a student in junior college.

Unhappy with how she looked, Heng became obsessed with losing weight, monitoring her calorie intake closely. There were even times when she pretended that she already had her meals to avoid eating.

Eating just a little bit more than she wanted would leave her miserable and she would make sure she exercised more to burn those calories.

While she lost 10kg during those two years, this routine that took a toll on her well-being.

The 27-year-old said: "I was very consumed by it, I felt like I didn't really take good care of my health back then. The body was something that was meant for looking at as opposed to something that allowed you to do a lot of things.

"I was tired all the time, I slept a lot back then and I had no energy to go out much. My mum would say I dropped a lot of hair back then."

Things started to change only when she enrolled in the National University of Singapore (NUS) on a sports scholarship in 2014 to represent the school in discus throwing, a sport that she had picked up in secondary school.

As she prepared to participate in bigger competitions like the Asean University Games, she started incorporating weightlifting into her training routine as her coach in NUS encouraged her to build up her strength to help her in throwing.

Over the next year, how she viewed her body began to change. It was no longer just something to look at, it was something which enabled her to accomplish things.

She also started seeing food as something that helped her achieve more instead of being fearful that it would just make her put on weight.

Heng said: "In general, I felt healthier and in control, I was no longer obsessing over what I should eat next, it's quite liberating.

"I can look at it positively and be like I ate a little bit more yesterday so maybe I can lift heavier because I have more fuel. It's no longer like I ate more so I have to punish myself after that with another workout."

While she got into weightlifting competitively only about three years ago, the nature of the sport also helped Heng develop a healthier relationship with her body.

Weightlifter Nicole Heng's own experiences inspired her to consider a career in fitness as she wanted to help empower others. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO AND CHONG JUN LIANG

As competitions take place in specific weight classes, weight was something transparent in the sport and was something that Heng became less conscious about.

She said: "It was no longer why are you asking about my weight and something I needed to hide from people. It became a very positive body recomposition journey - I want to be a better athlete so it means I must carry more muscles. That really empowered me to make better decisions in terms of nutrition and activity."

Apart from discus throwing, Heng was also a cheerleader in an all-female team comprising students from her university hall, competing and winning medals at national competitions.

It was also during university that she got to know the head coach at the Singapore Weightlifting Federation and began training and competing in smaller meets, before eventually deciding to focus on weightlifting after graduation.

She explained: "As a thrower, I always complained that I'm a very small thrower so there were competitors who were 90kg and one head taller than me. When I got to know about weightlifting as a sport and how it's by weight categories, it also matched what was my strength - which was power - it just all made sense."

Her own experiences inspired her to consider a career in fitness as she wanted to help empower others, but her mother was not too keen on the idea and so she put those plans on hold to take up a job in public relations after graduating in 2018.

But even then, she got the necessary certification to become a personal trainer and finally made the switch to the fitness industry last year.

Heng said: "It really allows me to have a more empathetic approach, especially when handling people with lower confidence or females who didn't have such good experiences because people commented on their bodies."

The upcoming Commonwealth Games in Birmingham will be the biggest competition of Heng's sporting career so far and she is excited to make the most out of the experience.

She said: "I want to be able to show the hard work I've put on the platform. The goal is to make the opener lifts for both snatch and clean and jerk, and hopefully bag some personal bests there and just put on a good show. Hopefully I can total 167kg which will allow me to qualify for the upcoming Asian Championships."

Team Singapore weightlifters at the Commonwealth Games:

  • David Mok (Men's 55kg)
  • Chan Ying Ying (Women's 49kg)
  • Kester Loy (Men's 67kg)
  • Sarah Ang (Women's 59kg)
  • Lim Kang Yin (Men's 81kg)
  • Nicole Heng (Women's 64kg)

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