The #Strong movement is presented by the TRI-Factor Asian Championships Series

As Phoebe Kee watched her father, Kee Teck Sing, compete in the 2011 Busselton Ironman, she thought to herself, “Wow, he’s amazing.”

Riding on that wave of inspiration, she signed up for the 2014 MILO Youth Triathlon two years later. The only problem? Kee was terrified of the sea, constantly clinging to her dad whenever they were at the beach and eliciting annoyed responses from him.

After two to three more practices, however, Kee’s whining ebbed, as well as her fear of the sea. At her first triathlon, she spent a few minutes in transition wiping off her feet, putting on socks, a shirt and a pair of shorts. Now, she can only spare a minute or so between elements while tolerating her sandy feet for the entire duration of the race and hoping to end with no blisters.

While she may not fear swimming in the sea anymore, the same can’t be said if she comes across the sea’s inhabitants. At the Nowra Elite Energy Tri Series in January, a bloom of jellyfish surrounded her during the swim leg. Kee admitted that might have convinced her to swim faster to avoid being stung, although she wasn’t able to steer clear of them entirely.

“To be a triathlete, you have to be a bit out of your mind,” said Kee, 17. “You feel like shit during the race and question your life choices, but the feeling of satisfaction afterwards is really overwhelming.”

In the past four years, Kee has competed in 10 of the Tri-factor series races. From finishing outside the top 10 in her debut triathlon, she has ascended to become a regular podium finisher in the multisport events.

Phoebe Kee coasting to a third place finish in her age category at the Metasprint Triathlon in April. (Jing Zhi Chua)

Why the triathlon?

Every triathlete’s jagged scars and uneven skin patches tells a story of a practice session gone awry. They fell off their bike while making a sharp turn. A collision with a structure that greeted them with a harsh, stony welcome.

In 2016, while Kee was cycling along the West Coast highway, she clipped another cyclist’s wheel and flew into a barrier. Her face took the brunt of the impact. She showed up to school with a swollen face and nasty bruising that lasted for many days, drawing many curious glances.

Kee still continues with the sport despite its high-risk nature.

“I think that forcing a specific activity on children greatly reduces the element of enjoyment, and they might even grow up to resent that particular activity,” said Kee’s father.

The triathlon community in Singapore is so small that everyone knows one another, athletes and parents alike. Kee’s parents converse easily with her teammates at races, often bringing snacks for the athletes to share. The reserved Kee has little qualms about hanging out with her teammates’ parents.

Having explored basketball, athletics and now triathlon, Kee believes that triathlon parents are generally “more fun” because of the sheer dedication required to fund and support their children’s interest, which can demand around 12 practice sessions a week.

Sacrifices for her passion

It is no secret that Kee’s strongest element in the triathlon is running, the leg where she usually reels in the rest of the competition. She ranked sixth in her cross country debut in 2015. The following year, she improved to third in cross country, fourth in the 3,000-metre and a bronze in the 1,500m. These accolades earned her a DSA spot at Victoria Junior College last year.

Kee marked 2017 as her breakout year when she attained a hat trick of distance titles at the national school level in cross country, 3,000m and 2,000m steeplechase. The last treble achieved by an ‘A’ Division female was in 2012 by Belle Tan when she won the cross country, 3,000m and 1,500m events.

Earlier this year at the SA and Wings Cross Country Championships, Kee continued to prove her dominance in her age group, gapping her peers by over 40 seconds each time. Both times, she was wearing a neutral black outfit, leaving her competitors scratching their head at the start line as they perused her unexpectedly different attire.

After struggling through the first year of the ‘A’ Level system, Kee decided that she wanted out. Attempting to fit in multiple practice sessions for triathlon and keeping up with the syllabus constantly had her playing catchup. Exam periods stressed her out too much. The quiet-natured Kee, who spent the past 10 years growing up in Singapore Chinese Girls’ School around familiar faces, felt emotionally drained as she struggled to adapt to a new culture.

“This is a rather unconventional path for a Singaporean student, but ultimately we believe that her happiness is important,” said Kee’s father.

Even though Kee’s no longer in school, she’s still studying – this time, for the SATs. She still attends her Learning Lab GP classes, where her teacher, Ms Han, regularly sends reading material about current events.

Tight knit family, excellent support system

Withdrawing from school halfway through was a “very tough and quite scary decision,” as Kee’s father put it. When Kee first floated the idea, her parents and coach, Fabian William, were fine with it, on one condition: create a plan.

Being the driven and efficient worker she is, according to William, she drafted one in no time. Although her mother initially harboured hopes that Kee would just push through and complete the ‘A’ levels, Kee now has her most trusted people in her corner as she guns towards her next goal, the 2019 SEA Games.

“We knew it was not an impulsive decision because Phoebe had a plan,” said Kee’s father, who often supports his daughter at her races, both local and overseas. “We wanted to give her the chance to make full use of her youth to pursue her passion and maximise her potential.”

For William, who has been coaching for at least a decade, Kee’s parents are the epitome of the ideal parenting model. Too many a time, he has come across parents who want full control over their child’s development. Not so  for the Kees, who let Phoebe “own the problem and solution” and provide her with their full support.

“Her dad is the definition of fatherly,” said William. “He’s very encouraging, he knows when to step back and give her space. Her mum is her confidante who Phoebe can tell anything to.”

Fabian William oversees the running portion of Kee’s triathlon program. (Romaine Soh)

Runner at heart

While Kee is primarily a multisport athlete, she’s also taken on another challenge along the way – aiming for Singapore’s distance records in the athletics realm. And there’s no one more excited about this goal than William himself.

“When she told me that she was interested in gunning for a national record on the track, I thought, “Now we’re talking,”” said William, a former marathoner and ultra-marathoner.

Kee first discovered her passion for running during her basketball days when they were made to run 2.4km as punishment. While many of her teammates dreaded it, she found solace in the uniform motion of driving her legs forwards.

In 2014, Andy Chia, then Kee’s triathlon coach, convinced her to trade in her court shoes for running shoes instead. The accolades have come pouring in since.

“I don’t see running as separate from triathlon,” said Kee. “It’s a part of training and racing, just like the local swimming and cycling races.”

William, who took her under his wing last year, recalled their goal-setting discussion went something like this:

“I want to do an Ironman,” said Kee, who turns 18 this year.

“No, not in 10 years’ time,” said William. “What are your goals for now?”

“Ironman,” insisted Kee.

William was struck by her laser focus, but taking into account her youth, had to refine her goal-setting skills. Aim for the Commonwealth Games. Then SEA Games. A marathon perhaps. All of those would build towards the Ironman in the future.

“She’s the type that I need to worry about because she may be actually dying, but still wants to continue the workout,” said William with a chuckle.

Phoebe Kee competing at the 2018 Singapore Open 5,000m. She clocked a PB of 19:34.64 and has been selected to represent the nation at next month’s Asian Junior Championships. (Jing Zhi Chua)

Sports or nothing

Long before Kee took up the triathlon, she was already frequenting East Coast Park with her parents partaking in activities such as cycling, roller blading and waveboarding. With two triathletes in the family, their family destinations have taken them to the clear turquoise waters of Redang Island in Malaysia, and Hawaii’s idyllic beaches and intense hiking trails up narrow mountain pathways.

Even though going the rigorous triathlon training means that Kee has to cut down on her social activities – she often turned down hangout opportunities after school because she had to rush to a practice session – she has no regrets. After all, the sport has awarded her some of her closest friends, opportunities to visit various places in the region. Most of all, it’s her passion.

“There’s nothing else I’d rather do,” asserted Kee.

Kee’s progression

2014: Tri-Factor Swim 6th, Tri-Factor Bike 2nd, Tri-Factor Run 1st,

2015: Tri-Factor Swim 3rd, Tri-Factor Bike 2nd, Tri-Factor Run 1st, Singapore International Triathlon 4th

2016: Singapore International Triathlon 1st

2017: Tri-Factor Triathlon 1st, Tri-Factor Swim-Run-Swim 1st, Singapore International Triathlon 2nd

2018: Metasprint Triathlon 5th overall, 3rd age cat

Other #Strong ambassadors: Nicholas Rachmadi