“I want to win the SEA Games and be the first Singaporean triathlete at the Olympics,” said Herlene Yu, 17.

“I want to compete at the Kona Ironman World Championships,” said Phoebe Kee, 18.

I want. Two powerful words that inspired two girls to dream big. Both of them left the ‘A’ Level system after a year to start a new life in Australia. A lifestyle change they hoped would help them get closer to their goals.

Seeking a balance between academic and athletic pursuits in Australia

The content-heavy ‘A’ Level syllabus requires consistent work or you’re left playing catchup. The three elements of the triathlon demand even more training time compared to most sports, which left Phoebe and Herlene exhausted as they struggled to rest adequately and keep up with their schoolwork.

Both of them concluded that if they wanted to achieve their goals, both academic and sports-wise, something needed to change. Herlene, an aspiring physiotherapist, headed to Perth. Phoebe jetted off to Sydney on the other end of the country to work on her 6-year veterinary degree.

“In Singapore, it is extremely hard to juggle both academics and sports simultaneously especially with the high demands in academic results,” said Herlene, who is in her foundation year at Canning College.

“In Australia, they have a strong work-life balance culture. School starts later so I have more time to rest. Hence, both my parents and I concluded that moving to Australia to pursue my goals and maintaining a holistic lifestyle was a better option.”

Herlene trains with the same squad at Eclipse Performance Center for all three disciplines in the triathlon. (Courtesy of Herlene Yu)

One of the appeals of choosing Australia was triathlon’s status as a mature sport. Herlene lives five minutes away from the pool and trains with the same squad from Eclipse Performance Center for all three disciplines. In Singapore, her parents shuttled her from practice to practice for the different disciplines across different teams.

Phoebe still receives her program from her Singapore-based coach, Fabian William, thus soloing most of her sessions. That’s not to say she can’t appreciate the city’s strong sports culture. Sydney’s Centennial Park, Phoebe’s favoured venue to clock long runs, boasts over 4km of asphalt and grass which is often populated by runners and walkers alike. Many cycling groups in the city, including the Sydney University Velo Club which she rides with, meet at the park as well.

While Phoebe revels in the drier climate, she still cannot reconcile the limited access to the pay-per-use track. Each entry costs $5.50 and she has to tailor her schedule around the limited opening hours (3:30 pm – 8:30 pm, Monday through Thursday).

Herlene with coach Stuart Durham from Eclipse Performance Center. (Courtesy of Herlene Yu)

A home that’s not so far away from home

Down Under is a popular option for Singaporeans who want to remain relatively close to home while furthering their studies. The close proximity to home was particularly appealing to both girls – Perth is in the same time zone as Singapore and Sydney is two hours ahead, so they can easily contact their family.

“I video call my mum while I’m cooking my meals. It helps to hang out with other Singaporeans as well because of their familiar accents, and you always find things in common,” said Phoebe, who sometimes plays touch rugby with the Singaporean community in Sydney.

A major pull factor for Herlene was her elder sister, Hillary, who is pursuing a physiotherapy degree in Perth. Both of them live in the same house, taking turns to cook and sharing household chores.

While Herlene was used to being away from home for extended periods of time due to training camps, living overseas was a different ball game.

“There are times when it’s just a thought and I try to push it away to avoid breaking down. But sometimes when I’m in bed and about to sleep, it gets real bad. I just really miss home and start questioning myself whether I made the right decision to move,” said Herlene, admitting that she broke down twice in the last six months.

“Usually, I’ll just force myself to sleep so I can’t think anymore. Other times, I’ll call home.”

Phoebe calls home often while she cooks to update her parents on her life. (Courtesy of Phoebe Kee)

Learning to rely on themselves

Household chores, paying the bills, grocery runs. What once used to be their parents’ responsibilities snuck their way into Herlene and Phoebe’s schedules as they navigated the beginnings of living on their own. In the initial months, their parents accompanied them to help them settle down. But juggling these newfound responsibilities with training and schooling was definitely not a cakewalk.

“There’s no one here to make me go for training and since I run alone, it’s so easy to just push back a workout till I end up not doing it at all,” said Phoebe.

The approaching winter serves as another test of self-motivation. Most prefer to be able to feel their fingers and toes, sipping a warm cup of coffee huddled under a blanket. Athletes also get to do that – after waking up bleary-eyed, rubbing their hands together to ensure their fingers are still intact, and getting the workout done in temperatures ranging from 3-10 degrees Celsius.

I used to have my parents around to wake me up in case I can’t peel myself off the bed. Now, I have to consciously remind myself that I don’t have my morning call,” said Herlene, who sets three alarms to get up at 5 am.

Getting one step closer to their dream – making the SEA Games squad

But the fleeting homesick feelings and the biting cold are far from enough to distract the duo from the reason why they moved 4,374km across the globe. They had a dream. They knew what they needed to do to get closer to their dream. And they acted on it.

Their dream begins with “I.” But the motivations behind their dreams stem from the people around them. Herlene wants to fulfil her late grandfather’s wish that she would don national colours. Phoebe is inspired by the sport’s pioneers and wants to do her support system proud for getting her to where she is.

Said Herlene, “It has always been my dream to make it to the team.”

Now, “I want to” could become “I was there.”

While Phoebe Kee does most of her sessions solo, she bikes with the Sydney University Velo Club. (Courtesy of Phoebe Kee)

Herlene will participate in the internal trials for Singapore’s SEA Games triathlon and duathlon mixed relay teams on June 1-2 at Educity in Johor Bahru.

Phoebe will gun for an individual duathlon slot at the Tri-Factor Belitung Duathlon on July 6. She met the qualifying time of 2hours 26minutes at the Clark Tri-Factor Duathlon (2h 20m 53s).

(Cover photo edited by Alvin Ho)