Chua Koon Siong: The fearless man of steel
By Justin Kor
Chua Koon Siong approached the 130kg barbell for his first lift at the 1981 Commonwealth Weightlifting Championship, confident that it was more routine than risky. He had lifted heavier weights thousands of times before and this one in Auckland, New Zealand, was no different.
But as he pushed the iron bar above his head, his grip slipped and the momentum of the move caused the barbell to smash into his face. As solid metal met delicate flesh, his brows and lips instantly turned crimson with blood.
Dazed from the impact, he tripped over a TV camera wire while walking down from the stage, and fell flat on his face. He passed out for the next seven minutes.
“When I came to, the first thing I asked was ‘where was home’,” recalled the 70-year-old, who had suffered a concussion and forgotten that he was thousands of miles away from Singapore.
But there were still two lifts to go, and he was hell-bent on completing them. Against medical advice, he returned to the stage.
An hour later, he was standing tallest on the podium, after winning the gold medal with a final lift of 137.5kg. Blood was still dripping from his face as the medallion was draped over his neck. But at that point in time, he no longer cared. The memorable turnaround had been completed.
“I was so happy. I had forgotten everything that had happened,” he said, referring to his injury. No doubt, the concussion probably helped.
The indomitable man called his Auckland feat the most outstanding win of his career. It’s quite an accolade for a lifter who rarely came home from overseas competitions without a medal.
He is a nine-time South-east Asian (SEA) Games medallist, with three golds among them. He is also a former Olympian who participated at the 1976 Montreal Games. Such a record made him a three-time Sportsman of the Year – an unprecedented feat for a Singaporean male athlete at that time.
The iron bars he loved were an embodiment of his career over two decades: solid, steely and simple.
Putting his body on the line
It speaks of his training regime too. He had daily double sessions, starting at 5am daily with a warm-up run along Boat Quay, before honing his technique on the barbells.
There was the snatch – where he would raise the barbell overhead in a single continuous motion – and the clean and jerk, in which the barbell had to be lifted to the chest first, then overhead. For each move, Chua would incessantly perform anywhere between 300 to 500 repetitions, in sessions lasting over one and a half hours.
Training would then resume in the evening at 7, before finally ending at 11pm. Sometimes, he even worked out on an empty stomach.
“When is a tiger most aggressive and powerful? When he’s hungry,” he replied with a wry smile.
But such punishing routines took a toll on his body. In a similar accident to the one suffered in Auckland, he once trained so forcefully that he slammed a 110kg barbell against his throat. It pushed his Adam’s apple inwards so much that his voice remains permanently hoarse till today.
He was left in agonising pain for a week. “I couldn’t eat, because I couldn’t chew. Even my teeth were painful,” he recalled with a shake of a head. But he did not seek medical attention. “In those days, we didn’t really care much.”
Another time, he injured his back so badly that whenever he coughed, he would urinate uncontrollably. But that still did not stop him. “If your lower body is injured, then train your upper body. If you stop, that’s it – no hope of winning,” he nonchalantly said.
In fact, there was never a rest day for him, not even for special occasions like birthdays.
Despite suffering such serious injuries, he never shied away from the weights. “If you’re scared, you won’t be able to lift as much. The iron won’t kill you. The most, it’ll just drop on you. But it won’t kill you.
“When it comes to weightlifting, the trick is ‘don’t think so much’, just go in and think that I can do it.”
Besides the physical toll, weightlifting came at a literal cost as well. Half of his $1,600 monthly pay as a security guard at the Peninsular Excelsior Hotel, where he still works today, went into buying food to sustain his strength and massages to ease the aches.
“You must have the motivation to carry on yourself. If you want to succeed in sports, you must make the sacrifice,” he said.
The globetrotting weightlifter
Besides hardships, the sport had its perks as well. For one thing, it allowed him to see the world at a time when travelling was considered a luxury in Singapore. He was part of the four-person Olympic contingent sent to Montreal in 1976.
There, he finished a respectable ninth in a field of 17 world-class competitors that included powerhouses from the Soviet Union and Eastern European bloc countries like Hungary and Bulgaria.
It was a valuable experience for Chua. “These athletes were on a whole other level. They were simply massive,” he recalled. “We knew we couldn’t win. We were there just for the experience.”
Previously, he also competed at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland, and 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand.
After retiring in 1984, he remained in the sport. As national coach of the 1993 SEA Games weightlifting squad, the team bagged a silver and a bronze apiece under his tutelage.
Today, even though Chua has now entered his 70s, the strength still remains. His grip is still vice-like, his sandpaper-textured palms rock hard from years of strenuous lifting. The joints remain as limber, as the father of three sons demonstrates his techniques by squatting with vigorous force.
He claims that he is still able to deadlift more than 100kg. One would be wise not to bet against him.
Despite the numerous plaques and medals now displayed in his home at Sembawang, the sport back then was largely a thankless endeavor, the sacrifices simply made in the name of passion. “That time, there was no money in it. When we won, we didn’t get anything.” he said.
“We participated in the sport because we liked it, and we just wanted to bring glory to Singapore.” Solid, simple and steely indeed.