‘When there’s a wheel, there’s a way’ is a column featuring your next door folk balancing their athletic pursuits and their everyday life. Brought to you by Bikes n Bites.  

2018. Youth Olympic Games year. Herlene Yu had been looking forward to this for 18 months.

It didn’t matter that she had to get up at 5am four times a week for morning swim practice before rushing to school. Nor that she missed the first week of junior college to attend a training camp in Australia while others got a head start on the curriculum and established their social circles.

One shot at the YOG. All in or go home.

“I hated going to the pool.”

Though Yu never vocalized this thought, it became apparent to her and her parents two years after her peak when she represented Singapore at the ASEAN School Games and medaled at the SEA Age Group Championships at age 13. Following that high, Yu still held the same personal bests and struggled to make national teams against up and coming swimmers.

Being a New Year’s baby, Yu had the option of joining the older batch in school. A lifetime of keeping up with more developed kids despite a year’s difference resulted in an inbred hardworking nature that gives Yu tunnel vision once she sets her mind to something.

“She plods,” said Stephie Chai, Yu’s mother. “Her coaches will tell her to slow down, but she will still give 100 percent.”

Even though Yu still diligently woke her parents to send her to morning practice, high self-expectation gnawed away at her love for the sport and she started questioning her future. Yu’s uncle, who worked at a triathlon academy, invited her to join their run practices in an attempt to snap her out of her rut.

New sport, no goals, no expectations. Just for fun.

Within a few months, Yu somehow managed to turn a hobby into another high-performance pursuit. Despite being one of the newest faces in the scene, Yu placed first in a simulation race at a training camp in Perak. That was the first time she started dreaming of qualifying for the YOG.

“I thought maybe I had a shot because I was the newest member, but I was doing well,” said Yu, 16.

All she had to do was place top five in the Asian region qualifiers and she’d be off to Argentina. 18 months to go.

Herlene Yu

Herlene Yu used to think running was really tiring. Now, she believes a 5K after swimming and biking is more tolerable than a solo 5K run. (Romaine Soh)

Just slightly accident-prone

Yu has a storied history of accidents in almost every other triathlon. A displaced back wheel on her bike; a nasty bruise on her foot because of a moving pedal; a sprained left arm. Yu’s mother floats between the start, the second transition and the finish line, anywhere where she doesn’t have to watch the bike leg.

Yu’s mother recalls one too many occasions where her loved ones were involved in bike accidents, the worst being a motorbike accident that claimed her brother’s life. She prays for her daughter’s safety before every race.

At Yu’s final tune-up race in Hong Kong a month before the YOG qualifiers, her bike hit the curb. The force sent her flying into a pole and she lost consciousness.

Yu’s first thought when she came to: “What’s gonna happen? All my hard work has gone to waste.”

When Yu’s parents finally met her, she couldn’t move her fingers and could only apologize. “I’m sorry I couldn’t complete the race.”

“Aren’t you in pain?” Yu’s mother said in exasperation.

At the hospital, Yu screamed at the doctor when he announced he had to cut off her tri-suit to examine her. The sound of the blade slicing through the fabric of her first national tri-suit was not any more comforting than her final diagnosis of a broken clavicle, a damaged knee cartilage, and 2.5 torn ankle ligaments.

“I was asking God, why me, why now?” recalled Yu.

“It takes a village.”
Yu’s parents, Yu Kok Chew and Stephie Chai take turns ferrying her between school and training. Yu’s sisters, Hillary, 21 (first from left, bottom row) and Heidi, 17, (second from left, top row) are her confidantes who support her in various ways such as giving her rubdowns and writing notes of encouragement. (Courtesy of Herlene Yu)

“Patience you must have, young Padawan.”

With the YOG qualifiers fast approaching, Yu pressed her doctors for clearance to compete even though she was still limping. They refused.

As much as Yu tried to avoid updates on the qualifiers, she naturally woke up at 7 am when her race was flagged off in Subic Bay, Philippines. The group chat that she was in with those competing in Subic Bay, including fellow YOG hopefuls Nicholas Rachmadi and Luke Chua, was flooded with congratulatory texts for fellow Singaporean Emma Middleditch, who had won the qualifiers and was headed to the YOG.

While Yu was happy for her countrywoman, she found herself wondering what could have been had she made it to the start line. Her recovery was progressing two weeks slower than what her doctor expected. Initial runs were limited to a maximum of 9 minutes. Swimming was painful on her shoulder. Her bike was stuck inside on a trainer instead of tasting concrete.

“Focus on the process instead of the outcome,” is a mantra often emphasized by her Australian coach, Mike Delamotte.

After reading about other pro triathletes who ended their season prematurely due to accidents, such as Australian Matt Hauser and Ironman world champion Tim Don, Yu didn’t feel as bad about herself anymore.

“(Tim’s) passion made me realise I shouldn’t give up,” said Yu. “He has already achieved so much, yet he kept going despite a broken neck. I haven’t achieved anything.”

Herlene Yu

Herlene Yu made a successful comeback at the 2018 Singapore International Triathlon, nearly five months after her accident. (Jing Zhi Chua)

It’s comeback time

Yu was cleared to run almost four months after the crash. Last weekend, Yu finished first in the Singapore International Triathlon sprint distance, her first race since her injury.

“Going into the race, I was excited and scared at the same time,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I was ready because I haven’t raced in a while, but I wanted to get back into racing.”

Reflecting on her comeback journey, her biggest takeaway was patience. “Be patient about resting. Take a step back to find joy in the sport again.”

Despite the disappointment of not qualifying for the YOG, for which she’ll be ineligible for by the next edition, Yu has already achieved her first renewed goal of returning to the scene. Her 5 am sessions are still a key component of her training program geared towards her next high-performance goal, which still remains a blank.

But Yu can count on her family support to help her towards that goal. And her mother will still avoid watching the bike leg as much as possible.

Find similar stories in our column, “When there’s a wheel, there’s a way,” brought to you by Bikes and Bites.