Singapore's ju-jitsu champion Constance Lien fights the enemy within
To the ju-jitsu world champion, the mind is an arena as well
On the mat, Singapore's ju-jitsu champion Constance Lien tussles with opponents of all sizes but, in her mind, she grapples with formless yet formidable forces - her worrying thoughts.
The submission specialist shared that she felt the pressure to excel especially after winning the World International Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Championships blue belt featherweight (U-58.5kg) title in May.
Lien, who promoted to a purple belt after the feat, was weighed down by expectations at the Ju-jitsu Asian Championships in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – a SEA Games qualifier – two months later.
The 20-year-old fell to Filipina Annie Ramirez, a judo black-belt holder and ju-jitsu world pro champion in the purple belt U-57kg division, and finished joint-third with Maha Alhinaai from the United Arab Emirates.
"I got only a bronze in Mongolia and I felt like I could have done a lot better if I didn't worry about whether I could uphold this or mount that," she told The New Paper after a training session at Evolve MMA gym.
When asked if she sees herself as her greatest enemy, she agreed. But she also considers it the "wake-up moment" she needed before the SEA Games.
Upon reflection, she found that "the most important thing about competing is that I'm doing it because I love it" and now copes better with the pressure of being at the top.
"Of course, there are going to be expectations, but the important thing is to do my best. Not anyone's expectation of my best but my own," she said.
The Sportsgirl of the Year hopes to wrap up her season with a gold medal at the Nov 30-Dec 11 SEA Games in the Philippines, where it's going to get tougher.
Ju-jitsu, which is making its debut at the biennial meet, will be an open-belt event, which means Lien is likely to face more established opponents with brown or black belts.
"The competition level is definitely higher," she said. "Competitors that are purple belt (or higher) are more serious about ju-jitsu and have developed their own game and uniquely crafted styles based on our body type.
"That's something that makes ju-jitsu amazing because you'll never see a person with the same style as someone else."
To achieve her target, Lien continues to work her body like a machine.
As she put it, "For all the competitions I go for, my style of preparation is not on my opponents but only on myself."
She has kept to the intense preparation that won her the world title, sticking to a regimen of training twice a day, seven days a week.
The only thing she tweaked was swopping some cardio for strength and weight training.
Lien, who weighed 58kg, is in the process of bulking up by three kilograms to compete in the U-62kg category.
She also increased her time on the mats and spars with male athletes in anticipation of facing bigger opponents.
Her coach Joao Teco Shinzato, a two-time world champion, is confident that Lien will reap the fruits of her labour.
"I believe she will represent Singapore well at the SEA Games," he said. "She has two or three tough opponents lined up for her… but I believe she can bring back the gold."
"Ju-jitsu is a complex sport and Lien is a specialist. She takes the time to specialise and perfect her style (for) more chances to take control of the game.
"She's not the type of athlete I have to push because her drive and hunger surpass any kind of expectation I have.
"I've taught ju-jitsu for 20 years now and I've never seen anyone train full-time with the kind of dedication she has."
Lien also reminds Shinzato of his former disciple, Brazilian ju-jitsu legend Marcus Almeida, a 13-time world champion in the absolute (open-weight) and 100kg divisions.
"She's an artist and truly has the potential to pursue this and be a black-belt world champion (one day)," he said.
Lien will take a step closer to that at next year's world championships in Long Beach, California, where she will be eyeing her second world title.
But first, the former swimmer wants to fulfil a long-time dream.
Lien, who won a silver at last year's Asian Games, said: "The SEA Games is my last competition and my final goal for this year.
"It was my childhood dream to go to the major Games as a swimmer. So, it's pretty cool that I get to represent (Singapore) in ju-jitsu instead."
Lien, who recently became a Sport Singapore ambassador, also conducts mentorship sessions to motivate teens and youth athletes with a focus on mental health.
"I'm still growing and healing as an individual and I want to do more," she said.
"When I was younger, I never had someone who could be the beacon of hope.
"Now when I'm in a position where I can be that for others, I would love to do that."
Having known what it's like to be conquered by conundrums, Lien finds joy in helping others overcome theirs.
"I got only a bronze in Mongolia and I felt like I could have done a lot better if I didn't worry about whether I could uphold this or mount that."
- Constance Lien, on finishing joint-third at the Ju-jitsu Asian Championships in Mongolia in July