Sports has always been the main topic of conversation in Ryan Tan Qai Shen’s close-knit family.

“And the topic of our silly jokes! We’re very close, and have always spent a lot of time together,” said the 18-year-old triathlete, who grew up in Subang Jaya.

“Much of that was because my parents would send my younger sister and I to every training session, and wait right till the end for us.”

So, it’s no surprise that after 10 years spent training in competitive sports – which started with swimming – Tan will be making his debut at this year’s SEA Games in the men’s individual category of the triathlon.

Triathletes are some of the most versatile and resilient sports people around, since the triathlon comprises three endurance sports – swimming, cycling and running.

The 29th SEA Games triathlon event will see competitors starting with a 1.5km swim in open water, followed by 40km of cycling, and then finishing off with a 10km run.

Prior to qualifying, Tan spent a few months training with the Hong Kong National Team.

“Having just reached 18, I knew I had to train extra hard to even compete with the older competitors, who have more experience for standard distance triathlons,” he said.

“The selection race was at such a distance, double what I did at the time, that I had to increase my training regime to cope with it. It definitely wasn’t a one-man effort, and I would like to thank all my coaches and training partners,” he said.

The determined triathlete evolved from an avid swimmer, who began his training with the Sri KL Sharkies Swim Club, with his former school, Sri KL, and went on to become a state swimmer for Selangor.

“Now, I train with the Stingray Swimming Club in Kelana Jaya,” he said, speaking to Star2 via an email interview from Hong Kong, where he will be training until August.

He started cycling when he was about seven, and in spite of a number of falls when he started – “even with training wheels!” – it soon became a favourite pastime. “I could go anywhere with my bike – I still feel so free whenever I cycle now,” he said.

“My team and I would meet up every weekend in Putrajaya to cycle. Subang Jaya has a lot of traffic, so on weekdays, I would do one or two indoor cycling sessions.

“Normally, if you want to do longer rides, you would get a group together – it can be boring cycling alone. Drafting each other means learning how to share the load between each rider, and this teaches teamwork, which creates close bonds among the riders.”

Tan’s training schedule is rigorous – even when he was in his final year of high school last year, he did double sessions every day, with an early morning jog or cycling session, core exercises after school, then swim training.

In his rare down-time, Tan enjoys shooting pool with his friends, reading science-based books and seeking out little-known and unexplored corners of his home town.

“It’s been a long journey with many obstacles – waking up at 4am to swim, cycling in all kinds of weather and pushing all the way in training. Sports has taught me many things, like discipline and perseverance in particular … and I apply these in my studies, too,” he said.

“I feel the journey of becoming an accomplished sportsperson requires many sacrifices, and you make and lose many friends along the way.”

In the end, physical training is important, but with a triathlon’s emphasis on endurance, the success of a triathlete also depends heavily on mental and emotional focus and commitment.

Despite his youth, Tan seems to have that in spades. And he is buoyed by the firm motivation he receives from his family.

“My family is my driving force for anything I do in life – they are always there for me.

“I believe if you have a goal and you give your best, you will achieve it in the end – the satisfaction of doing that is indescribable.”