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Chitchat This Week's Fit Chiobu - Aisyah Rafee



Singapore #Fitspo of the Week Aisyah Rafee: 'When you love your body, it loves you back and it provides you with what it needs'​

Be inspired by the success stories of fitness influencers, celebrities, models, trainers and everyday movers in Singapore​

Cheryl Tay
Cheryl Tay
Updated Sun, 10 March 2024 at 5:33 pm GMT-7

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week Aisyah Rafee is a national rower.

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week Aisyah Rafee is a national rower. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
Life goes beyond the digits on the scale and your body is capable of so much more! Yahoo’s #Fitspo of the Week series is dedicated to inspirational men and women in Singapore leading healthy and active lifestyles. Have someone to recommend? Hit Cheryl up on Instagram or Facebook!
Name: Aisyah Rafaee (@ariesyah)
Age: 35
Height: 1.73m
Weight: 65kg
Occupation: Athlete
Status: Married
Food: I do not follow any particular diet.
Exercise: I’m currently training for the Asian Olympic Qualification Regatta in April, so in a week, I row 6 to 7 times, lift 3 times and row on the machine twice.

Q: What kind of sports did you play growing up?​

A: I played netball since I was 10 years old and represented my schools in the ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Divisions. During my time at Anglo-Chinese Junior College, my team and I were the ‘A’ Division champions. Additionally, I represented Singapore in the Under-15 squad. Netball has shaped my athletic abilities and taught me valuable lessons about teamwork, and determination.
I would also say that growing up with four brothers was a sport. Our dinner table was like a battleground with food running out quickly. Being late to the table often meant that your favourite dish would be gone before you could claim your share. It was a hilarious yet competitive environment that unknowingly helped me to be agile, which is crucial given the fast-paced and competitive nature of sports.
Aisyah started out in netball during her school days, but moved on to rowing when she was 15.

Aisyah started out in netball during her school days, but moved on to rowing when she was 15. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

How did you get into rowing?​

At 15 years old, I was scouted by a former female national team rower and that changed the trajectory of my athletic journey. She probably saw something in me when I was on a rowing machine and the rest is history as I began my journey as a rower.
I have always felt competitive and being recognised by the talent scout and my coach fuelled my competitive spirit. Honestly, it also started with being competitive with myself because getting to row on the water was challenging and I was trying to prove to myself that I can do it.

What are some highlights of your rowing career?​

Winning the 2013 SEA Games gold in the lightweight women's single scull, and qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games are some of the highlights of my rowing career.
The 2013 SEA Games was a pivotal moment for me because I beat another female athlete from Thailand who was a three-time Olympian. It made me realise that I could be an Olympian one day too.
However, a pivotal moment came when I realised I could not afford to pay for rent and groceries while training in Sydney before the Olympic Games. That’s when I decided to set up a crowdfunding page to fund my training. I received overwhelming support from people which made the journey even more special.
Qualifying for Rio at the Asian Olympics Qualification was a big moment in my life and it came as a slight surprise to me because I was not one of the top rowers to qualify based on the heats. In the finals, I was determined to show the world how badly I wanted it. My determination spoke volumes and I pushed myself to the limit. So much so that I could not stand after the race, and it took ice packs to cool my body down and aid my recovery.

What was your Olympic journey like?​

The journey in sports often comes with its share of ups and downs, and my experience was a testament to the rollercoaster ride. The downs are the financial constraints of not being able to afford my training and competition overseas.
Another battle that I had was with my mind. I worked a lot on building positive self-talk, confidence and commitment to a race plan. Sports is also a mental game, so conditioning my mind to overcome self-doubt and push beyond my perceived limits was important. There was also the dealing with unnecessary stress caused by the politics of sports. This was not within my control so I had to learn to navigate that.
The ups were overcoming all these challenges and finding out who’s always going to be on your side, and who you can trust and rely on. It was a balancing act to stay focused on my goals and things beyond my control.

When did you realise it was time to retire from competitive rowing?​

I realised it was time to retire when I started to hate rowing. Each time I sat in the boat, I found myself crying because I felt confused and lost. What was something that played a big part in my life was suddenly something that I did not enjoy anymore. That was hard to swallow and come to terms with.
It took me two years to retire. I tried taking some time off from rowing, and whenever I went back, I couldn’t find a purpose or reason to continue. It was a struggle.
When I am at work, all I can think about is rowing. However, when I got to row, I realised I did not want to be there. It was definitely a long period of living in limbo, which I’m grateful I was able to pull myself out of.
Aisyah is coming out of retirement to try and qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Aisyah is coming out of retirement to try and qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

What made you decide to come out of retirement and attempt to qualify for the Olympic Games in Paris later this year?​

I haven’t raced in a single scull rowing event since 2018, but when I participated in a race like that last October, I did pretty well so I thought I should go back to competitive rowing just to see how fast I can go. Also, to add fuel to the fire (in a good way), I met a group of Olympians after that and they suggested that I go for it. That gave me the motivation to give this qualifier a go.
This is the Asian Olympic Qualification Regatta that will be held in Korea in April and the top five rowers will qualify for Paris 2024.

During your retirement, you attempted a marathon for the first time and qualified for the prestigious Boston Marathon.​

I ran without a coach and just followed a free online programme. Although it gave me some things to start with, I did not know how to suit the training to my needs such as how to fuel myself and strategise for the race. I remember being tired while training.
During my first ever marathon, I hit the wall in the last 10km of the marathon and I was fighting everything in me under the harsh cold weather that made it extra challenging. I almost gave up but thankfully the race allowed people to jump in and run together with the participants. So my husband ran alongside me and pushed me through the last 10km.
At that point, I didn’t even know whether I could qualify for Boston. Meeting the qualifying time does not guarantee entry since some races use cut-off time as a means of measurement. Thankfully, I did qualify, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit and I had to postpone the race for two years. I qualified in 2019 for the 2020 Boston Marathon but only ran it in 2022.

Any plans to take your running pursuit further?​

I am keen to see where running takes me. I want to be able to see how fast I can go in the half- and full marathon. I would consider myself a newbie in the sport and there is still a lot more to learn. I know I still have miles to put under my belt.
I did not manage to reach my sub-1hr30min goal for the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM) 2023 half-marathon because I was unwell the day before the race and that affected my breathing. I also allowed negative self-talk to affect my performance and was disappointed with my timing.
I definitely need to work on my mental skills in running, just like how I did for rowing, and it is an ongoing process.

You now run a mental excellence coaching business.​

When I started coaching, I realised that not many people know what to do when they want to start running or train for a race. My coaching not only provides my runners with an individualised training programme to help meet their needs and lifestyles, but I also provide mental skills sessions to help runners with motivation, race strategy, confidence and other areas to help them perform better. I also enjoy learning more about the sport and drawing my experiences as an elite rower and a rowing coach into another sport.
Aisyah started a mental excellence coaching business following her retirement from rowing.

Aisyah started a mental excellence coaching business following her retirement from rowing. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

Have you experienced any incidents that made you feel insecure about yourself?​

I transitioned from being a lightweight rower to an open-weight rower for the Rio Olympic Games since there was no lightweight single-scull event. When I started to gain mass, I was not able to fit into my clothes anymore and that made me feel so insecure about my body. Even though I was stronger and fitter, I was not confident about how I looked and I felt “too muscular”.
It was not until someone told me, “You look like an Olympian” that made me realised I should not feel ashamed about these muscles. It took a while to remind myself that my body is beautiful and strong, and now, I wear my muscles with pride.

Did you ever struggle with your body?​

I was a lightweight rower for pretty much most of my rowing career (from 2005 to 2015). It was then that I struggled with my body weight. I needed to be 59kg and I am 1.73m tall. I am naturally more muscular so I had to go through a weight loss process. It was tough! I starved myself and experienced disordered eating. I do not think 59kg was ever my natural weight.
I only transitioned to open-weight rowing for the Olympics because the Olympics did not have a lightweight single-scull category. I felt that the transition to open-weight rowing at the Olympics saved me from myself. I was so hard on myself trying to make weight. I was a grumpy person to be around and I was obsessed with weighing myself. Sometimes, I even weighed my food.

Do you get any comments about your body? How do you deal with them? If you could change anything about yourself, would you?​

I have a fair share of positive and negative comments about my body from different groups of people. The positive ones are usually about how my body looks strong and muscular.
On the other hand, I have received comments about how I needed to lose weight to look thinner. There was a magazine photoshoot that I did, where they "photoshopped" my muscles to make them look smaller.
I gradually learnt to acknowledge these comments without letting them affect how I feel about my own body. I also had to learn to remind myself that no one has the right to comment about my body.
Now, I have come to terms with the fact that my body is beautiful no matter how much it weighs. I feel that when you love your body, it loves you back and it provides you with what it needs.
As an athlete, I’m proud of my body because it can support the demands of being an athlete. When I train as a runner, it gives me what I need. When I train as a rower, it adapts to the different physical demands.
Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Aisyah Rafee. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Aisyah Rafee. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)