Triathlete Charlene Tang once weighed 28kg during battle with anorexia as a teenager

Triathlete Charlene Tang once tipped the scales at just 28kg when she hit the lowest point in her battle with anorexia over a decade ago. PHOTOS: KELLY HUI, COURTESY OF CHARLENE TANG

SINGAPORE - Triathlete Charlene Tang has competed in over 20 triathlons around the world, including the Ironman 70.3 last year in Bahrain, where she clocked a personal best of 4hr 59min 59sec.

Sporting a healthy tan on her 1.54m, 47kg frame, it is hard to imagine that this 25-year-old once tipped the scales at just 28kg, when she hit the lowest point in her battle with anorexia over a decade ago.

In 2007, the budding gymnast, who was putting in 20 to 25 training hours weekly, decided to lose weight in a bid to improve her performance on the mat.

Tang, who started gymnastics when she was seven, said: "I was one of the bigger-sized kids compared to the other gymnasts, so I thought if I lost a little bit of weight, that would help because if you're lighter you flip a bit better.

"Gymnastics is also a pretty brutal sport because you wear leotards so you can't hide anything, and people judge you for also how you look during competitions."

In the early stages of her eating disorder, she found ways to cover it up by giving excuses like having to complete her homework to avoid eating during recess. At home, she would avoid fried food and meat while eating slowly to avoid her plate emptying too fast.

She shed four kilograms over the next year and won the national title, which she took as an indication that she was doing the right thing.

But things soon spiralled out of control.

Tang found herself dozing off during lessons and lacking the energy to train.

"I knew deep down I was doing something wrong but the idea of putting on weight scared me and I feared that I was going to be lousy at gymnastics," she said. "I look back and think, 'how am I even alive?'"

Those around her grew increasingly concerned as her weight plummeted to the low-30kgs, which prompted her parents to send her to a psychiatrist.

She was prescribed antidepressants to help alleviate the anxiety from eating and her parents and friends tried to help her, but Tang continued to restrict her food intake.

The turning point came when she hit her lowest weight of 28kg, and her psychiatrist warned that she would have to be hospitalised if her weight dropped any further.

"At that point, I was nothing but bones," she said. "I was thinking if it was really going to be worth it if I was going to be hospitalised."

Recovery came with its own set of challenges as she fought the urge to return to her old ways.

"I definitely had a lot of instances where I felt disgusted with myself and could have easily fallen back into old habits but I was fortunate to have the support of many friends," said Tang, who took 1½ years to fully recover.

She returned to gymnastics, but eventually stopped after junior college.

Her road to recovery saw her taking on a new sport, aquathlon (run, swim), when she enrolled at the Singapore Management University in 2013. She also started cycling and competing in triathlons.

Tang, who is also a triathlon coach, said: "Triathlon taught me to enjoy the journey and less of the outcome."

On May 10, Tang will be taking part in OCBC Cycle's The Straits Times Ride, a non-competitive 23km race, for the first time.

"It gives me a break from the usual races and I definitely appreciate the community that I get to enjoy the sport with," she said.

Tang's coach of three years, Colin O'Shea, credited her progress from anorexia victim to triathlete to her indomitable spirit and dedication to the sport.

"She has become a stronger person because of what she has been through and some of that mental strength is helping her with these races," said the 37-year-old.

"She's incredibly dedicated and is serious about training, completes all of her sessions with a smile on her face."

Visit OCBC Cycle for more information.

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