SIA pilot turning pro kettlebell lifter at 42, hopes more young S’poreans can join sport
Young Singaporeans have a lot of potential to win overseas competitions, he firmly believes.
If there is one thing you need to know about kettlebells, it is this: Lifting just a reasonably heavy one, three times a week, will make you — regardless of your sex — very fit, in a very short amount of time.
Gyms in Singapore these days, as well as in Decathlon, are littered with these cast iron and steel devices that resemble cannonballs with handles.
Their ubiquity is the surest indication the sport is experiencing something of a second wind in Singapore since 2010.
Lifehacking gurus, such as Tim Ferriss, swear by its efficiency and outcomes.
Moreover, the Soviet origins of the kettlebell is a guarantee that its users are likewise of a rugged and industrious make.
And the one Singaporean guy who is doing his utmost in the sport is Samuel Lam, 42, a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777 pilot of 15 years.
Pilot turning semi-pro kettlebell lifter
Besides flying the friendly skies, Lam is an avid and competitive kettlebell lifter, having participated in competitions overseas on his own accord over the past few years.
He picked up the sport in 2012 as a complete novice, joining group “void deck” training sessions, and has not looked back since.
Train to master sport
“I decided to try something new every three years when I first started flying,” Lam said.
“The rule was to learn something to feed the mind and train the body. And hopefully, in that three years, learn and do it well.”
Which makes him something of a high-impact sports junkie.
Lam, who used to play field hockey when he was schooling, started out running marathons — which are those 42km things for those who want to push their cardiovascular systems to the brink.
After running eight of them and managing to do so below four hours within three years, he simply moved on.
He then took up combat sports Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he reckoned were great — until he tore his MCL (Medial Collateral Ligament), which is a band of tissue in the inside of the knee.
During the recovery period Lam grew chubby, and a functional fitness trainer introduced him to the kettlebell.
And he has never looked back since.
First Singaporean to win overseas championship in 2017
Lam came in first at the 2017 World Championship of Kettlebell Lifting in his category — the 68kg weight class amateur category for men.
It was the first time someone from Singapore won in this competition, which was held in Seoul, Korea, on Nov. 17, 2017.
Lam, by then, had been kettlebelling for about five years.
That competition attracted about 470 participants from 33 countries.
But Lam went there as a one-man contingent — which also partly explains why he did not have much good footage of himself lifting, because there was no one around to help him with filming or photo-taking.
And this fact is telling: Lam’s observation is that despite many in Singapore having picked up the kettlebell sport over the last several years, the number of elite Singaporean competitors competing at an international level is not high at all.
What is kettlebell lifting sport?
While some are quick to lay into the kettlebell sport as nowhere as glamorous or well-marketed as CrossFit or powerlifting, the fundamentals cannot be denied: It requires nothing short of a combination of strength, flexibility and mental endurance.
Kettlebell lifting can be described as an “endurance weightlifting sport”.
Lam specialises in one event known as the long cycle:
It involves fluid swinging motions of a pair of kettlebells between the legs, transitioning them to a locked position at the chest level, followed by an explosive thrusting overhead as follow-through, before bringing the kettlebells back down and repeating the motion again, over a period of time.
Lam is capable of doing at least 68 reps of this motion in 10 minutes, using a pair of 24kg kettlebells.
This means he can lift 48kg in total simultaneously and repeatedly — bearing in mind he weighs only 68kg.
In kettlebell competitions, the aim is for competitors to repeatedly lift kettlebells within a limited amount of time.
The winner performs the most number of reps.
The world championship has been held since 1992.
Lam has come far in a relatively short period of time.
In 2012, when he first picked up the kettlebell, the main motivation was to lift his twin daughters at the same time when they were toddlers.
“That time I started out wanting to carry both my daughters only,” he said.
His children are now nine years old, and fitness dad is showing them the ropes — with 2kg kettlebells.
Breaking personal bests
During the course of the interview, Lam did not talk up his personal achievements or medals, but focused solely on what the kettlebell sport entrails and about ensuring Singapore will be represented at major international kettlebell competitions in the future.
And beating his previous best efforts is also a clear constant goal.
Lam has been training hard and progressing from 24kg to 28kg kettlebells — or 56kg for a pair — and will compete with them by this year.
Next year, he hopes to compete with 32kg kettlebells — or 64kg for a pair.
When he does, it would be the equivalent of repeatedly lifting his own body weight.
His next competition in Taiwan in July 2019 will see him still stick to 24kg kettlebells — as there are no 28kg events.
But he is set on breaking a personal record when he goes over — and ensuring Singapore can fly its flag there.
He hopes to do 75 reps with a pair of 24kg kettlebells in 10 minutes.
His previous records were between 65 and 70 reps.
Lam’s flying schedule does make it difficult to train, he freely admitted, given how he is not in Singapore two-thirds of any given week.
This means he is nowhere near being a full-time athlete and his training ground is the small corridor space outside his family’s apartment.
It is about planning his time around the training, and squeezing in as much training as possible within a small window, Lam said.
He elaborated: “It is all about time. For me to devote certain amount of time to this sport when I am in Singapore, I do it when there is no one at home.”
“And it doesn’t eat into family time.”
To overcome geographical distances, Lam has been training with coaches online who provide him with training programmes to follow.
Lam’s current coach is Chris Doenlen, an American champion and a Master of Sport.
Lam himself is a certified candidate master of sport — one of two people in Singapore to attain this level.
This is a formal qualification given to those who are able to complete 68 long cycle reps in 10 minutes.
Meeting coaches in person to improve techniques does take place about twice a year, when Lam flies overseas, usually because his work schedule permits.
But with age catching up and a full-time pilot career on the plate, one big challenge Lam highlighted is making weight.
Lam said: “I am not very good with all these protein shakes. Multivitamins is something I would have to take. I have to watch my diet more closely closer to competition because I have to make weight.”
Future of kettlebell bright?
So, where does Lam see the kettlebell sport in the future?
According to him, Singapore has a wide talent pool of potential competition-winning lifters, but they are nowhere to be seen competing overseas.
This is despite fitness-conscious lifestyles booming in Singapore and with more people actually taking up kettlebell lifting.
Lam hopes shining the spotlight on the sport will pave the way for the younger ones to train and compete professionally.
“I don’t see myself promoting myself as bigger than the sport. I see the sport being bigger than me,” he said.
“At some point in time, there will be someone who is going to be better than me, he is going to be ahead of me. How am I going to facilitate that?”
“Because I am doing it, it is right that we must be able to embrace that to bring the sport to a bigger level in Singapore.”
He also thinks kettlebell can make an appearance as an Olympic sport in the future.
“Maybe not by 2020 or 2024, but who knows? Maybe in 2028,” he said.
“The next eight years is a good time to prepare.”
Singapore’s early lead
By Lam’s reckoning, kettlebell lifting made its way to Singapore as early as 1993.
This means that Singapore actually had a first-mover advantage, but that momentum was subsequently lost to countries such as Taiwan, where the sport is flourishing with practitioners of all levels.
But things have been picking up in Singapore and going well again since 2010, Lam said.
Asked about how Singaporeans can become more acquainted with the sport, he said outreach is the first step: “There can be more training sessions everywhere, to reach out to people. And there can also be more in-house competitions.”
“This will help build the Singapore base to be stronger.”
“Then there can be more athletes sent overseas for different meets.”
Lam also admits there is the perennial question of who pays.
“But funding is an issue for all sports,” he said.
Singapore kettlebell competition
For those who are looking around Singapore for a kettlebell gym, Lam recommends AlphaFit and Strength Avenue.
For those eyeing a chance to compete or to see how kettlebelling works, there is the Singapore Kettlebell Championships 2019 that will be held at Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre on June 29 and 30, 2019.
Competitions are platforms for lifters, both novices and professionals, to outlift one another, as well as outdo themselves.
The two-day event is meant for amateurs and the pro-elites to compete.
As to how realistic his own personal ambitions are, Lam is cognisant of the realities of competitive sports, which also explains the push for younger ones to step up.
He said: “The goal is to compete as a pro-elite and score well once in my life before I turn 45.”
“After 45, there is a little bit of a taper in your performance. Of course, there is the veterans category, but that’s not as competitive as what you like to be.”
Lam’s last amateur competition will be in Taiwan in July, and he is turning semi-pro after that.
A new generation of kettlebell lifters can hopefully rise through the ranks in Singapore, starting with those who do it recreationally.
And then they can start winning internationally too, eventually.