Manhunt SG winner's 'broken heart' is his source of strength
Manhunt Singapore 2021 winner Hong Yu Chao has had to struggle with heart issues throughout his life, but he says friends joke that his "broken heart" is also what gave him strength.
Mr Hong, 24, was born with a condition called atrial septal defect - a birth defect in which there is a hole in the wall that divides the upper chambers of the heart.
He had surgery to fix this when he was 10, after his doctor told him that he would not live past his 20s without surgery.
Mr Hong, a National University of Singapore business graduate, won the Manhunt title at the finals held on Feb 28 and will represent Singapore at the Manhunt International competition in October.
He was also signed up as an artiste with talent management and music production company Royal Entertainment Singapore.
He tells The Straits Times: "I am all for seizing the day. I constantly worry that I might not have as much time as other people, so I am determined to make the fullest possible use of it."
Manhunt Singapore was on his bucket list, and he joined it to overcome his insecurities. He was recovering from a shoulder surgery which he underwent in 2020, and worried about the physical scars from his operations.
Mr Hong, who is 1.83m tall and 75kg, says: "I had to shore up the confidence to bare those scars during the competition. That was mentally and emotionally challenging."
He says he put in a lot of effort into exercise and diet to improve his physique during Manhunt, but later learnt to embrace his imperfections.
"Days before the finals, I thanked the organiser because - win or not - I had already seen how much I had changed and exceeded my own expectations. The win was a bonus," he adds.
Mr Hong recalls how he was "hit hardest" as a pupil at Opera Estate Primary School.
He says: "I was depressed and felt negatively about my condition because I had always loved sport, and (the atrial septal defect) kept me away from that. I had to sit on the sidelines and watch others enjoy PE lessons and other physical activities. I hated that."
When he entered Manjusri Secondary School, he became "a bit bolder" and ignored his doctor's orders by playing sport almost every day - even becoming the school's basketball captain.
He says: "Basketball was my life and I took pride in it."
However, things changed after a 2.4km run for a physical fitness test.
He completed it in 8 minutes and 53 seconds, but towards the end, he experienced chest pain - the first reminder of his heart issues in many years.
The incident forced him to be more cautious when exercising and kept him from competitive sport when he was at Singapore Polytechnic.
But he insisted on staying active, playing recreational basketball and going to the gym regularly.
It appeared his heart got stronger, as during National Service, Mr Hong was "thrilled" when he was assigned a PES (physical employment standards) B4 status, making him suitable for some combat vocations.
However, it was then that he was diagnosed with bicuspid aortic valve, which refers to an aortic valve that has two flaps instead of three, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood into the body's main artery.
The condition is genetic and worsens as one gets older.
He says: "It made my whole situation with my heart demoralising and depressing.
"My grandfather had been a soldier in China and I grew up listening to stories about his experiences. I was excited about being in a combat PES and had dreams of becoming an officer and being in the armour unit, but my condition meant that none of that could happen."
He ended up being a medic at a medical centre and has since learnt to strike the right balance between and exercise and moderation, and to keep monitoring his heart during routine check-ups.
For now, intense sport for an extended period of time causes palpitations and minor heartache and pain.
The only treatment is to insert a metallic valve into his heart, which also means taking lifelong medication, but he is trying to avoid this option as long as he can.
Mr Hong says: "My health challenges have always been my main source of motivation - whatever challenge I take on, whether sport or Manhunt.
"It is a constant reminder that I am no different from anyone else and that my heart issues cannot ever be an excuse to quit.
"I hope to be able to use Manhunt as a platform to inspire people not to let anything hold them back - even a bad heart - and to, instead, be brave and embrace the challenge of sport and fitness."