Chelsea Hung Cheuk Yi — triathlete and physiotherapy student — on going from junior to elite distances and recovery from an eating disorder
18 year old triathlete Chelsea Hung Cheuk Yi is a supported athlete of the Hong Kong Sports Institute. She’s represented HK in triathlons since 2014. She’s come back from a second place finish at the April 2017 Subic Bay ASTC Triathlon Junior Asian Cup. This year she’s also making a transition from the Junior category to the Elite / Olympic Distance, i.e., going from a 750m swim + 20km bike ride + 5km run to 1.5km swim + 40km bike ride + 10km run. In October 2017 she’ll be representing HK and competing in the 2017 Hong Kong ASTC Sprint Triathlon Asian Cup.
Chelsea first started swimming at the age of 3. Her father participated in track and field when he was younger, now plays football, and has always been supportive of her sporting endeavors. While her favorite sport is badminton, her strength is in swimming, so from a young age she started competing in swimming. Before triathlons, Chelsea competed in aquathons (swimming + running) and in 2008 completed her first triathlon. When she first added biking to her training, the biggest challenge she faced was overcoming her fear of riding at speeds that go up to 60km/hour and higher.
From Jan 2015 to Sept 2016, Chelsea experienced an eating disorder where her weight dropped from 50kg to 39kg, triggered after attending the 2014 Youth Olympics and thereafter wanting to look like other competitors who were leaner and faster / stronger. What she discovered when her weight dropped was that while she could run faster, she struggled with swimming. Now recovered, she’s since learned the importance of maintaining an ideal balanced weight that will allow her to perform effectively in swimming, biking and running.
Chelsea is a second year physiotherapy student on a sports scholarship at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and will be graduating in 2022.
As you transition from the Junior to Elite category, the race distance will be longer and the competition higher. How are you both physically and mentally preparing for this change?
In olympic distance triathlons, endurance is just as important as speed (in the junior category, speed was more the focus). Since my muscle mass is currently insufficient to support longer distances, I need to first start gaining some muscle mass so I need go to the gym and lift some weights. As I also need to enhance my aerobic system to prepare for longer distances, in training I’ll be swimming, running and biking farther. I personally don’t know how to do this yet, but as my coaches have experience helping other former junior athletes transition to elite, I’m sure they can guide me.
Mentally, I’m approaching the first two years in the elite category as my adjustment period. I’ve spoken to other athletes who’ve gone through this process before and they tell me to be prepared that my results could be less than ideal. In some situations I might even go from being placed top 3 in the junior category to being placed last in the elite category. It’s a time of learning about how best to warm up for longer distances, how to adapt my nutritional needs etc. I don’t plan on giving myself too much pressure by setting targets or expecting to medal; I’m focused on learning and adapting. Once I feel I’m adapting and have a better grasp of my times, my strengths and weaknesses and what I can do, then I can start to set myself some targets.
In this transition from junior to elite category, is there anything that you’re nervous and excited about?
I haven’t swum 1.5km before, let alone in the sea, so naturally I’m nervous about this. I’m excited for the longer distances though and it’s because I consider myself an endurance athlete and not a sprinter. In sprint distances I have trouble pushing myself to sprint – for example in swimming, my sprint time is about the same as my best average time, sometimes even slower!
I’m more suited for longer distances. I’ve just come back from training in Japan. There was one session where we had to swim flat-out (i.e, as fast as possible) 4x25m; 2x50m, 1x100m, 1x400m and 1x800m … my swim time for the 800m was better than the swim time for the 400m. It wasn’t simply the time aspect, the feeling of swimming the 800m was much smoother for me. I’m excited about the longer distances as it’s more suited to my strength.
In competition, while covering such long distances across three very different sports, what are you thinking about? How do you stay focused?
Truth be told, after I came back from the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, I hadn’t performed well in the subsequent 8 or 9 races — not until this year’s Asian Championships. I had especially found it a struggle in swimming; as soon as I hit the water my arms would feel so tired, even if I had only swum 100m. During this period, whenever I was swimming I would question myself and question why I was constantly feeling so tired. I felt I was always blaming myself. This affected my biking which comes after swimming as I would think about how to bike faster, or still question why I couldn’t swim faster and why I was so slow. There really were many negative thoughts going on in my head. Then in running I would always tell myself, “run faster, run faster” in order to catch up whatever time I can, and aim to pass one person at a time.
This year’s Asian Championships were a turning point for me. I will consider it one of the more crucial and memorable times in my life. I was able to find my groove and feel for the swimming and even if I didn’t come out of the water in the top of my pack, I will always remember that feeling of swimming. All I was thinking at that moment was how happy I was to experience that feeling. That positively impacted my biking because instead of having negative thoughts, I was thinking of how to stay on par with the rest of the pack instead of how to catch up or how to go faster. I was feeling good about the swim and that enabled me to stay focused on the race itself, to even enjoy it. By the time I reached the run, even when I was starting to fatigue, I was able to remind myself to run taller and approach my self-talk from a positive rather than negative starting point.
Sometimes also, when I need to distract myself, I’ll think about the food that I can eat after the race with my family. Such as ice-cream and that motivates me to run faster so I can join my family sooner.
What do you enjoy about triathlons and why is it important to you?
I really enjoy the challenge. I think triathlons are more popular overseas than they are in HK, exactly because they are challenging. I’ve encountered retired people and those in their 50s who start triathlons at their age because they’ve spent the first half of their life focused on their careers and now they want to enjoy life and challenge themselves in different ways. An example of someone I can think of is Gordon Ramsay, the celebrity chef, who participates in triathlons and ironman and has said racing is a release from the stress he faces running his restaurant business. I follow him because I enjoy cooking.
I find triathlons less boring than if I only competed in one category. For example if I swam, I’d only spend my time in the pool and occasionally in the gym. But in triathlons there are open water categories so I can train in both the pool and at sea. Then I’ll bike on some trials or on the road or up and down hills and there are many different paths we will train on. It’s also the same with running where I can run on trails, tracks, roads … And if I’m training or competing overseas, I use it as a way to sightsee and soak up the views of my surroundings.
Triathlons are incredibly important to me. When I was taking my Diploma of Secondary Education, I was feeling emotionally low all the time, as I was also experiencing my eating disorder at the same time. I asked my mother if it was worth it for me to participate in triathlons and if I should focus more on my studies so my grades could be better, but at the end of the day, triathlons brings me so much. Aside from health, which is the basic benefit, participating in the sport has given me a sense of accomplishment and helped me academically as it helped me secure a sports scholarship at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Also, there are relatively few triathletes in HK — and fewer female triathletes — so I’ve been able to stand out. When I compete locally and overseas, there is less competition for me and consequently there are also more opportunities for me to enter competitions. This has given me more opportunities to compete overseas and gain many experiences which I treasure more than my academic studies. I’ve also learned many life lessons from competition and also from training, such as learning to work with different coaches and teammates and I’ve learned to understand different perspectives, and various ways of working with different personalities. Needless to say, my social circle has also expanded.
Lastly, I find that triathlons are quite grueling and I have no doubt that the self-discipline and time management I have learned, as well as ability to persevere through races will inevitably be beneficial when I enter the workforce.
Can you share about your eating disorder and what you went through?
My eating disorder manifested after I returned to HK from the 2014 Youth Olympics in Sept 2014. It become more serious from around January 2015 to May 2016, just after I took my DSE and then my coach stopped me from training. I returned to training in Sept 2016.
But I had felt the pressure to be thinner even before that, because prior to this, all through my years of training before I even made it to the National squad, I’ve had several coaches who told me I was fat (I was chubbier when I was younger). One even said, “if you’re so fat, you’re not suited for triathlons, you can’t run fast,” or called me “fat girl [肥妹].” I was looked down upon because I was considered overweight — at that point none of my coaches thought I could run fast enough, or that I would make it to the National team. Maybe because this period of time coincided with my teenage years, I started feeling extremely self-conscious and took everything that other people told me to heart. I truly believed I was fat.
Competing in the Youth Olympics and competing against leaner, faster athletes put me on a path where I was determined to lose weight. So in September 2014 when I came back from the event, I cut out sugar, sugary drinks, junk food and fast food. I mean, I ate all three meals and things like rice, pasta, and small amounts of meat, but I was excessively cautious about what I ate. For example, sometimes for dinner I’d only eat one sweet potato. My weight fell to 39kg at its lowest, from about 50kg. Before I made it to the National squad when people were calling me fat, I was about 54kg and my weight had already dropped after I made it to the National team.
When I lost so much weight, swimming became arduous because I didn’t have enough fat so I had trouble staying afloat. While in the water I constantly felt cold, and when my muscles started getting too cold, they would contract and cramp more easily. My muscles were so tight; swimming was so toilsome for me. I felt as if I was exerting maximum effort but going nowhere. I think my weight loss is one reason I didn’t feel good and perform well in the 8 – 9 races after I came back from the 2014 Youth Olympics.
The weight loss didn’t affect my biking too much. In fact when I was thinner, my running was faster as I felt like I was floating while running; I didn’t have to exert much effort. But triathlon is after all, a three-sport event so I need to be able to balance my performance in all three sports. There’s no point in being able to run as if I had wings but swim as if I was deadweight. No matter how fast I run, it’s impossible to solely rely on it if I’m falling too far behind in swimming.
Physicality aside, the eating disorder affected how I looked. There’s an assumption that athletes should look tanned but glowing from being outdoors all the time, and look muscular and toned. However, my skin was yellow, probably because the weight loss weakened my health. I was also too skinny and my cheeks were sunken in. I simply didn’t look like an athlete. Many people even questioned if I was one.
An eating disorder is a type of emotional and psychological disorder, so emotionally, I was feeling awful; it was intolerable. For example, sometimes I’d see foods and want to eat it, but if I knew it was too fatty or unhealthy for me, I’d constantly struggle internally whether or not to eat it. This internal fight and dialogue of whether or not to eat the foods I enjoyed was the biggest emotional challenge for me. For most people when they see foods they like to eat they’d be happy; for me, I’d be calculating over and over again my calorie intake. I was obsessed with food labels to ensure my nutritional intake was within what I set for myself. If I ate too much, I’d train more and harder to burn off the extra intake.
Having an eating disorder changed my eating habits, and I admit mine were strange. For example, on my plate, I’d separate my rice from my meats from my vegetables and they couldn’t touch each other. I would also be extremely observant about what others were eating, and if I didn’t want to eat my foods, I’d insist on offering it to those around me. If people ate less than me I’d be extremely unhappy. I overthought on everything related to food.
Internal struggles aside, experiencing an eating disorder affected my family. My mother is a head nurse where she works and has encountered patients with anorexia so she knew what my symptoms were. She noticed my symptoms and the severity of it and would force me to eat, to the point where she almost had to scold me to eat. I recall the times when I was crying while being told to eat, and I would be saying things like “don’t ask me to eat.” I felt like I had committed a crime by eating.
Of course, I also knew my parents were extremely worried about me and were unhappy about the situation. Seeing them so unhappy and worried, I would try to eat, but I couldn’t do it no matter what I told myself. I didn’t have the mental or emotional capacity to actually eat. That aggravated the situation and it became a vicious circle of unhappiness in the family: I would be unhappy at the situation, then my family would be worried and unhappy, which caused me to of course be unhappier, and they would be unhappy because of me. So yes, the situation at home was not pleasant, and actually the atmosphere at home was quite negative because of me.
Girls and women in general are more prone than men to suffer from various forms of eating disorders. It’s also not uncommon that athletes — who face pressure to be an optimal body size or shape for optimal performance — suffer eating disorders. Having experienced this yourself, what words of advice do you have to someone who might be in a similar situation to encourage them to seek the counseling or support they need to overcome this?
I know of women athletes who have suffered some sort of eating disorder, including my role model, Flora Duffy. She was unable to complete the 2008 Olympics because of an eating disorder which had led to her health deterioration. She currently is a top triathlete globally, after recovering. Her situation shows to me that having a eating disorder doesn’t indicate that I’m a failure; rather, because I have experienced this, I understand how difficult it was when I had a eating disorder. It makes me appreciate success more. I think that compared to those who’ve had a smoother sailing in their triathlete journey, I might treasure wins and improvement more because I know how difficult it is.
If I had to offer some advice to others, I would tell them not to feel embarrassed about experiencing an eating disorder, and especially not to care about what people think of you. I’ve learned that eating disorders are more common than we think. The important thing is finding the right person who can be supportive and give the right kind of help. In my case I worked with a psychologist. We have to appreciate what is enough for us, appreciate our own bodies regardless of size and shape and stop comparing ourselves to others because size and shape are not always an indication of speed and strength. For example there’s a misconception that lean and long legs mean faster speeds, but I’ve seen athletes who are quite stocky and muscular who can run just as fast. I’ve learned that triathletes can’t be and don’t have to be too thin.
I’ve also come to appreciate the term “it’s fortunate to be able to eat [食德是福]”. Some people want to eat food but don’t always have the means to. Some people are ill and maybe their diets are restricted. While I’m at the stage where I’m young, I’m sporty and I can eat what I want, why not enjoy it, instead of being afraid of gaining weight? I don’t want to wait till the day when I get older and may suffer from illnesses such as high cholesterol or other diseases where I would need to watch my diet: it’ll be too late to enjoy whatever I can eat.
Importantly, skinny does not mean beautiful. Maybe a few years ago skinny was beautiful, but these days it’s not always the case. I’ve seen — especially overseas — the movement towards strong is beautiful. Even if in HK the perception is still skinny is beautiful, to me, too skinny is not healthy.
You’re studying physiotherapy at the moment. What led you to study this subject?
My mother is the head nurse where she works, so to some extent she influenced me career-wise and I’ve always wanted to be involved in the medical related field. I had thought about following in my mother’s footsteps and becoming a nurse — especially after reaping the benefits of the nursing industry when I started to participate in triathlons and wanting to contribute back through taking care of others. However observing that my mother’s career path can be quite challenging because nurses work in shifts and my mother had also asked me to think carefully about nursing as a career, I explored other options. When I came across physiotherapy, I thought it was quite suitable for me.
What are your aspirations beyond studying and being a triathlete?
While I’m an university student, I don’t anticipate myself becoming a full-time athlete. I want to focus on completing my degree. I look forward to becoming a physiotherapist and being able to help others. Perhaps when I graduate I might consider becoming a full-time athlete but it’ll depend on my form at that point. Maybe I’d have an opportunity to attend the 2024 Paris Olympics; in my lifetime I hope I can participate in the Olympics at least once. I also have a dream to travel the world and take photos, but that is expensive so I need to earn money to travel!