These days, Kimbeley Yap is happiest when she is helping someone else get stronger. As a fitness trainer, she thrives on seeing her clients achieve things they never imagined possible, whether it is doing push-ups or running a marathon.
“This is what I love. I love being a part of that change, helping people move better, get fitter or to just feel motivated to try something new. It’s amazing,” says the affable 31-year-old Yap.
Coaching, she says, is her newfound passion. It is a far cry from what drove Yap two years ago.
The two-time SEA Games triathlon gold medallist’s life used to revolve around her gruelling training, leaving barely any time for much else.
Everyone around her – family, friends and coaches – would all work around her athlete’s schedule because her training was paramount.
It had been that way for years.
Yap began training for competitions when she was seven. She started out swimming competitively. She was spotted by a coach at the community pool in her hometown of Miri, Sarawak and life as she knew it changed. She started with state level competitions, then national competitions and took part in her first SEA Games at 16 in 2001. She came away with a bronze medal and her fate as a national athlete sealed.
After years of swimming, Yap was invited to join a triathlon relay team – she’d have to swim in the open sea while her team mates would cycle and run the race distance respectively. Once again she proved her mettle and went on to win Malaysia’s first gold at the SEA Games in 2005 and again a year later.
Training was Yap’s life.
And then everything came to a halt in May 2014. She was cycling home after a training ride with a group of cyclists. Yap was en route to the 2015 SEA Games where she was, many believed, a strong contender for her third gold medal in the multi-sport category.
But it simply was not to be.
Yap was hit by a car from the back in a horrific accident that landed her in the hospital for a month. News of Yap’s crash went viral within minutes, with photos of her lying injured on the highway widely shared on social media.
She was, after all, a national treasure and the accident scene looked grim.
Fortunately, she didn’t suffer any broken bones but acute whiplash (which she later found out could have paralysed her). She also had a concussion and deep lacerations on her limbs – one so bad her tibia (shin bone) was exposed – which took time, and a few skin grafts, to heal.
Till today, Yap has no memory of the accident. The last thing she remembers of that fateful day was getting ready to go for her ride.
“People keep telling me that it’s a blessing I can’t remember and I guess they are right,” she says, not altogether convinced.
Recovery was long and extremely frustrating, she recalls.
“It took six months before I could walk on my own again and a year for all my injuries to completely heal. Do you know how frustrating that was? I didn’t understand or maybe could not accept how my strong body could not work for me,” shares Yap.
Also excruciating was looking at the scars on her body, particularly the deep one that ran across her forehead.
“Who was I? My face was so swollen and I had this huge scar on my forehead … I was unrecognisable. Each time I looked in the mirror, that’s all I saw. I was depressed and I went to see every skin doctor I knew to fix my face. But they all said the same thing … I had to give it time to heal. I was so frustrated. How much time? I wished someone would just tell me how long exactly before I could resume my life,” Yap recounts.
Yap admits that she was consumed with self pity and it wasn’t until she went back to the hospital for her physiotherapy that she realised how lucky she was to be able to walk at all.
“After my accident, a passer-by who happened to be an emergency doctor, stopped to help me. He held my head steady while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, and that simple act saved me from being paralysed. I was 2mm away from being paralysed, had I moved my neck at the time,” she says, the gratitude ringing clear in her voice.
That changed everything for Yap. She snapped out of her doldrums and stopped feeling sorry for herself and decided to focus on getting back on her feet.
She’s back in good shape now: she’s represented Malaysia in the World Towerthon Championship in Vienna in 2015 and is still active in sports.
She’s a trainer at Daily Muscle, a fitness company she runs with her husband Noel Maniraj Chelliah.
The pair met about five years ago when she was assigned to be Chelliah’s trainer.
At the time of her accident, the two had just began dating. Chelliah barely left her side throughout her month in hospital. The experience strengthened their relationship and changed both their perspectives on life. They decided not to wait any longer and got married later that year.
“You don’t plan these things and nothing prepares you for it when she was discharged from hospital, I proposed. I felt it was the right time and she said yes,” says Chelliah.
Yap has been invited to train competitively once again but she says her priorities have changed since her accident, as have her goals.
“You need passion to be able to train for a competition. Most people sleep for eight hours a day; we train for eight hours or maybe more. I thought about it but realised that I didn’t have that fire in me anymore.
“What I enjoy now is coaching others and helping them achieve their goals. I want to help ordinary people get fit. Of course, I do miss the competitions at times but I won’t trade this for another day of racing,” she says her voice trailing off a little as she looks around the Daily Muscle Lighthouse, the studio the couple opened in Damansara late last year.
Yap has also written a book about her experience with entries from her mother and brother, national swimmer Daniel Bego and a few close friends.
Telling her story, she says, makes her appreciate how far she has come in her recovery and how lucky she is.
“I hope that my story can give others who may have lost their way find hope again. I see things differently now … people say I have become more cheerful.
“When I was training and racing, I was driven by results and performance. Now I see that there is so much more to life than just that. I love that I get to work with my husband. Life is fragile and I intend to savour every moment.
Yap says, “A second chance at life is not something everyone gets.”