My parents had no idea anything was wrong with me when I was born in 1984 in Singapore. In fact, I seemed perfectly normal until about age four. That’s when I began walking on my toes with a sort of limp, as if I were to topple over at any second. With concerning stares, they scooped me up and took me to the doctor.
Turns out, I was born with a physical disability called spastic diplegia that was just coming to the surface. The disability made the muscles in my legs lock up to keep me from walking normally. There wasn’t a cure, but there were methods to help offset the effects, like physical therapy and surgeries, and believe me, we tried it all. I improved slightly over time, but the crooked gait was mine for keeps.
When someone’s different, they’re often gawked at like a spectacle at the local fair, and as you can imagine, all eyes were glued to me any time I was in public. If that wasn’t enough, I was mostly excluded from daily activities in school because I couldn’t run or play sports as well as other kids. When we’d have to play a game for class, no one wanted me on their team. I was a “liability” and my classmates asked the teacher to sit me out to “make it fair.” Looking back, I can’t really hold their words against them. They were kids. I was a kid. Still, I wish they had known about the terrible knot in my stomach, the sour feeling of dragging everyone down because of something I couldn’t control. Maybe if they’d known, they would’ve let me play.
So, what can you do without being called a liability, where no one cares if you can’t move your legs like other people? Video games, that’s what! At school, I felt left out and alone, but when I came home, I had the Internet and access to hundreds of kids playing online. I could walk around as my avatar in role playing games and forget about the roadblocks of reality. I felt like a regular kid.
My distaste for school only got worse, and by the time I was 16, I was fed up. My mom told me she’d rather see me happy than have me miserable in school. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would do for the rest of my life, but I knew I wasn’t going to find the answer in a classroom, so I dropped out.
So maybe I could try professional gaming? My parents were supportive, telling me that I could take all the time I needed exploring my options. So, like any other teenage boy would do, I became a couch potato for two years. I was holed up in my room all day playing video games and stuffing my face with junk food as fuel. When Asia was asleep, I was awake, playing against the gamers in the US. I’d play all night, and sleep all day, rarely leaving my room except to eat. And I ate…a lot. I lived off snacks, pizza, and (a gamer’s elixir:) soda. I’d have about five to seven liters of Coke a day, followed by two or three pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on the weekends. I know: The Food of Champions.
My parents would leave food or money on the kitchen table, and often joked that if they returned to find it gone, they knew I was alive. They didn’t mind that I was living vicariously through video games. At least I wasn’t out doing drugs or joining gangs like my older siblings. As strange as it sounds, I was the kid with a promising future!
My life of gaming had to come to a halt when I turned 18. It’s compulsory for men to serve in the army for two years in our country, so I went to fulfill my duty then. Even with my condition, I had to join because the medical office deemed me fit. As you can imagine from doing nothing but playing video games and inhaling junk food, I gained a lot of weight. Army training was hard enough with my physical deterrents. Add obesity to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a rough two years.
Although it was exhausting, I persisted. I wasn’t allowed to do much gaming and was forced to improve my social skills while also losing weight in the process. After getting rid of my first 20 pounds, I thought to myself, wait, this isn’t so hard. I can keep doing this. I reduced my junk food intake and started reading fitness articles for tips on how to improve my health. It was a whole new world.
Something in me shifted from my time in the army. Just to give myself something to do after my army time was over (and because I’d become more conscious of my health), I joined a gym. I had no idea that doing this would change everything. It started with me hanging out at the gym after my workout to watch TV all day. Then I started looking forward to the newest articles from fitness websites. I loved trying out new techniques and learning about the latest exercise crazes.
Before I knew it, the gym became my second home. Lower body exercises often put too much strain on me, but upper body exercises were fun for me, especially power lifting because it didn’t require a lot of movement. I liked pushing myself to see what my body was capable of. It was empowering to be good at something that required physical strength. I had never thought that was possible. As my physique improved, so did my confidence.
I hung around the gym so much that all the workers knew me by name. They’d joke, “Did you even go home?” Did I? I started helping other people with their workouts when I was done for the day, and eventually one of the staff members asked, “Do you want a job?” I, of course, said yes. I was already there all the time, so why not get paid while I’m at it?
Suddenly, a new path had appeared in my life, and I had my “a-ha!” moment. Personal training. I loved fitness and helping people; it was a slam dunk!
Despite my desire to begin, I had some doubts. Disabled people were viewed as tainted in Asia. Would anyone really want help from a disabled guy? Is there anyone like me out there doing this? I turned to the Internet in 2008, browsing for personal trainers with disabilities. I reached out to a few in the US and UK with my doubts. What they told me opened my eyes. “The only one stopping you from doing this is yourself,” they said.
And so, I worked feverishly to get my personal trainer certification. Just in case anyone tried to challenge “if a disabled guy could help them,” I acquired three certifications. By 2011, I was scheduling training sessions through the gym, sometimes working 15 hours straight. On my own time, I was power lifting to keep myself in shape.
Let me be clear about one thing, I didn’t consider myself amazing at power lifting. If anything, I was average. It takes years to lift the amount the world’s greatest do. So, you can imagine my surprise when in February 2015, a man in charge of recruiting for the ASEAN Para Games came into the gym and asked me to compete. The ASEAN Para Games is an annual multi-sports event for people in Southeast Asia who live with a disability. Think of it like the Paralympics, but more exclusive. 2015 was the first year that Singapore was hosting it and it turned out that there weren’t a lot of disabled power lifters in Singapore. I was their best bet, and I couldn’t believe it. For the next 10 months, I trained hard in preparation for the competition, proud to be representing my country.
On the day of the competition, I was nervous, but excited. For a while it felt surreal. Was this really my life? Just a few years ago, I’d been scraping lunch money off my parents’ kitchen table, and in the years before that, I’d been called a liability by my classmates. Here I was, representing my country in a competition that required body strength. Body strength. Unbelievable! I couldn’t stop smiling through the whole day.
I wound up placing fourth and not receiving a medal — but I didn’t really need a medal to have my life flipped upside down. I know now that the trainers I spoke to were right. When I believed in myself, I was capable of nearly anything!
Once the games were over, I no longer questioned my abilities as a fitness trainer. I didn’t worry about people staring as I walked down the streets. I accepted that I can’t change who I am. I was born with spastic diplegia, but that doesn’t make me any less of a person, and it doesn’t make me incapable of doing something great with my life. It’s a part of me, and I think it’s helped me down the path to helping others.
I believe as humans, we care too much about what people think of us. When I stopped caring, a whole world opened up that I had been stopping myself from entering. Today, I walk with confidence, not caring who sees me limping. I know what I’m capable of. It doesn’t matter if anyone else does.
This is the story of Melvyn Yeo
Melvyn is currently living in Singapore, still very much involved in the fitness world. Born with spastic diplegia (a physical disability that weakens leg muscles), Melvyn grew up feeling left out of physical activities and instead found solace in video games where his disability didn’t matter. He was convinced he’d be a gamer all his life until his mandatory time in the army helped spark his interest in fitness that led him down the path he is on today. He worked as a personal trainer and represented Singapore in ASEAN Para Games in 2015 which gave him the confidence to accept himself. Melvyn doesn’t compete in competitions much anymore. Instead, he focuses on helping others train and build up powerlifting so the sport can be taken seriously in the country. He also wants to create a stronger fitness program for the country so kids don’t have to get sent abroad for fitness education. Melvyn is at the moment planning a personal training webinar for 2019. Melvyn’s life goal is to become a billionaire and donate a lot of money for the government to use to improve sports in the country.
Life Log #248
This story first touched our hearts on December 27, 2018.
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