“When I was 18, I was a junior in the national track and field team. Although I hadn’t yet been classified as an ‘elite’ athlete, I was one of the top 10 runners across all schools in Singapore. Everyday, I’d rush to the National Stadium for training once I’m done with school.

Back then, there was no emphasis on the importance of sports massage or strengthening and conditioning. The focus was on performance and results. Sports massage was only made available to elite runners, which was unfair to the younger, up-and-coming athletes.

As time went by, I got injured and was not able to perform well. I didn’t have much money and I couldn’t get sponsors, so I wasn’t able to get the treatment I needed. I’m 39 now and I just underwent knee surgery for cartilage wear and tear that accumulated since my youth.

I signed on as a regular with the Singapore Navy and took up a Diploma in Sports Coaching at the same time. It was a suggestion by an ex-girlfriend, but yet in my heart, I knew I wanted to do something in the sports industry. I wanted to do something that would bring about good in people’s lives.

But for two to three years after leaving the Navy, I couldn’t get a job. It was a very difficult time for me. I performed many odd jobs, working long hours, often requiring tough physical labour – all for meagre pay. But I had no choice as I had to support myself.

This went on until an ex-boss asked me to join him in sports therapy because he felt I had the potential. For six months, I worked as a maintenance staffer at the Singapore Zoo from 9pm to 6pm, then rushed from Mandai to Novena and trained under him from 8pm to 11pm.

He taught me everything from the eastern to western style of sports massage. Although it was a very tiring routine, I felt motivated to learn something new. As time went on, I was able to build my clientele.

But unfortunately, my ex-boss began to take advantage of me. I earned $50 per massage but he’d take a percentage from me, so I’ll only earn $20. Despite that, he’d still want me to attend to 10 to 12 clients a day. I was overworked to the point where my health declined.

When I informed my boss that I could not carry on this way, he shocked me by saying, ‘Aylwin you have to understand that I’m the one who created you. You were nothing, you were just a cleaner before this.’

I was deeply hurt by his rude, insulting words – made worse by the fact that he didn’t know exactly what I did in the zoo! I respected him and never expected him to exploit me that way. 

Then things started to look up three years ago when I joined a new sports therapy clinic. Initially, my employer expressed hesitancy to employ me because he felt that I might not be able to attract clients. But when he later found out who my clients were, he became impressed.

Yes, I was treating clients like local boxers Muhamad Ridhwan and Muhamad Hafiz, One Championship fighters Amir Khan and Sam-a Gaiyanghadao, national rower Saiyidah Aisyah and national record holder Zubin Muncherji.

So he took me on and I continued to upgrade my skills by taking courses on dry cupping while working here.

Career highlight? In 2019, when the UFC had a fight event in Singapore, they personally contacted me to massage one of their fighters, Michael Johnson. I treated him and now we’re friends!

If I could offer any advice, it’s to never give up no matter what the circumstances are. Conor McGregor once said, ‘I’m not talented; I’m obsessed.’ I love that quote. It inspires me. If you’re obsessed with your work, you can achieve whatever you want in life.

I started in sports therapy earning less than $50 a month. I was exploited and went through depression and faced so many challenges – many I’ve not shared in this interview. But I have a successful career now and I go to work happy to see my clients and loving what I do.” – Aylwin, 39

Interview by: Arman Shah