WHEN Deborah Chong stepped on the podium with a Jalur Gemilang to pick up a bronze medal at the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) World Championships last month, there was more emotion than the usual athlete’s story of triumph over adversity. It was one of great astonishment.
Within two years of putting a stop to a monotonous and unhealthy lifestyle that, she said, almost cost the life of her prematurely-born son, Dawson, Deborah went through a breakneck transformation from a skinny and lethargic specimen of corporate cannon fodder to one of the world’s top bikini fitness competitors.
“Especially in my 20s, I just wasn’t concerned about my health, plus I had a high metabolism. No matter how much I ate, I remained skinny. So, others, especially my mother, kept pushing me to eat more. I would eat everything at any time,” said the 41-year-old single mother.
With instant noodles as a staple even during pregnancy, the turning point came when complications led to doctors performing a Caesarian section to save her son’s life.
Dawson, who is now 5, was born two months early and spent the first three months of his life on life support.
“My blood pressure was high and doctors had tried to bring it down, and at that point I was told that my baby had a 50/50 chance of surviving. They needed to bring him out to stand a chance of survival. They had spent hours trying to bring my blood pressure down from 8pm on that day. Only at 3am in the morning, when it went down, they immediately performed the procedure,” said Deborah.
Seeing Dawson on life support and learning what had possibly led to that episode saw Deborah turning on a switch she never knew existed.
“I had suddenly put on weight after giving birth, and learned that my life-long unhealthy diet and my never ever having exercised was the reason for my condition, which almost cost my son his life. I started learning about nutrition, and the more I learned the more I realised my mistake.
“If only I knew what I know now about nutrition, that never would have happened. I said enough was enough. There were always excuses and procrastination, so that had to stop. People always say they don’t have the time, but I now tell them I have eight jobs and still have the time,” said the general manager of an established investment firm.
“I'm a general manager of an investment firm, and a single mother, which means I’m a cook, maid, cleaner, driver, teacher and now an athlete too.”
The turnaround didn’t come until two years ago, but the ferocity driven by her own disappointment in herself saw to Deborah’s swift transformation. Her astonishing before-and-after images were not down to any magic potion or super supplements.
“It was down to very hard work. Once I began to see results, I became addicted, and now it has become a passion,” said Deborah, who works out daily and holds a tight grip on her diet, including mealtimes and food intake schedules that lead her through the day from sunrise to right to before bedtime.
“Dawson had to fight for his life and survived. My miracle is my son, so that gave me the drive, knowing that nothing was impossible.”
Deborah began stepping up her game, setting herself targets which she drove herself to achieve.
One after another, milestones were passed, and after being encouraged by her first trainer, Dennis Jeros, she decided to enter competitions this year.
“I didn't win anything in my first competition, so the drive was there. I went back and worked even harder. In my second competition in June (World Fitness Federation National Amateur Body-Builders’ Association Championships in Singapore), I won two bronze medals in the tall and senior categories,” said Deborah.
Then came the World Bodybuilding and Physique Federation Championships on Aug 27, where Deborah registered another bronze medal before the coveted IFBB bronze medal on Oct 6, all in her first year of competition. She was swiftly called up to the national team by the Malaysian Bodybuilding Federation.
She is now coached by three-time world champion Lilian Tan, who runs a stricter regime, aimed at taking Deborah to the next level — a world title.
“There were critics in the beginning when I began to post pictures of myself on social media. There were always people looking at the negative things. But after I began winning medals on the world stage and people knew my story, I received over 200 messages, especially from women, saying I inspired them,” said Deborah.