World jiu-jitsu champion Constance Lien found the strength in her sport to beat an eating disorder

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  • The Singaporean, who won her category at the World International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation event, also won gold at the Southeast Asian Games
  • The champ recalled the mental and physical pain of her former swimming career
Andrew McNicol |
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Singapore jiu-jitsu team member Constance Lien takes top position in grappling tournament. Photo: Nicholas Damien Goh Photography

Singaporean jujitsuka Constance Lien has become a national treasure since being crowned a world champion at the World International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Championships in the US last year. But the former national swimmer’s move to combat sports was far from easy.

Born into a family of athletes – her mother was a national team swimmer, and her sister is one currently – the 20-year-old purple belt recalled the mental and physical pain she experienced as a teenage swimmer.

Aside from the daily 5.30am drop-offs at the pool, cramming homework into school lunch times, and constantly sacrificing her social life, Lien’s coaches increased her stress.

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“I developed an eating disorder when I was 15 or 16,” said Lien, who also won gold at the Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines last year. “It came from the pressure of needing to perform and being told the reason I wasn’t performing was my weight,” she says.

“It turned into an eating disorder because it ignited a lot of insecurities in me, so it was a painful experience. But, it made me stronger and if I hadn’t gone through that, I wouldn’t be able to understand what it’s like, and I wouldn’t be able to help others in similar positions.”

Lien stopped swimming and joined Evolve MMA gym. She started with Muay Thai because she didn’t want to “make a fool of myself” in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. But she got over that.

Lien (right) says jiu-jitsu has helped with her self-confidence, and taught her that it’s OK to love herself.
Photo: Evolve MMA

“One thing I did to overcome my eating disorder was to find something that I love and what I did was switch sports,” said Lien.

“I found jiu-jitsu, and naturally my self-confidence level elevated a lot. It’s about finding what you love. I’m definitely a lot more secure – I still have my insecurities and, as athletes, we still have down moments, but I’m slowly learning how to have emotional maturity and I’m learning to love myself.”

After graduating from the prestigious Singapore Sports School in 2015, Lien won silver at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. It was Singapore’s only jiu-jitsu medal at those games.

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The city state’s first international jiu-jitsu medallist, Lien has since won a host of awards, including being named Sportsgirl of the Year by the Singapore National Olympic Council.

Her most memorable moment was winning the world championship gold medal in the purple belt division, immediately after which she received her purple belt promotion. After that win, Lien cried tears of joy and assumed her trademark celebratory pose: kneeling while pointing to the sky.

“Winning a world championship was definitely surreal because it has always been a dream of mine,” said Lien, who wakes up every morning to a handwritten “You will be world champ!” note stuck on her wall.

Lien switched sports to overcome her eating disorder.
Photo: Evolve MMA

Her huge success in such a short time frame did not completely convince her parents of the wisdom of her new activity: they worried that she might get injured.

“You’re bound to get injured in martial arts and combat sports. As long as I take good care of my body and listen to myself, a lot of injuries and risks can be prevented,” she said.

Off the mats, Lien is waiting on a university place to study sports psychology.

“One cause I hold dear is mental and emotional health – not just for athletes, but for everyone. I hope I’ll be in a position where I can be a sports counsellor or psychologist.”

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She also has some timely advice for young athletes who may be struggling to balance schoolwork with training and their social life.

“Everything comes with sacrifice. When I was a full-time student and athlete, a lot of my social life was non-existent. I would go into training early in the morning, so I could tick one training session off, then go to school,” she said.

“I would study at lunchtime so I could get work done and train at night. It’s involved a lot of discipline, focus and time management.”

As for the most important question we ask athletes: after training, what is this champion’s favourite post-training meal? Spaghetti bolognese with a strawberry smoothie!

Edited by Ingrid Piper

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