New mum Cheryl Lim returns to the piste at World Fencing Championships
Only four months old, Steffan Lee will be making a special appearance at the World Fencing Championships in Milan, though on the sidelines while his parents Cheryl Lim and Samson Lee compete in the individual and team epee events.
Lim, 30, a veteran fencer who has competed in the SEA and Asian Games, had initially retired after winning a silver and bronze at the 2019 SEA Games, but returned to the sport three years later.
As her husband will also be in action in Italy, they will take turns looking after Steffan, with teammates and officials pitching in and volunteering their time. Twenty-three athletes from Singapore will contest the July 22-31 world championships.
Lim said: “I’m very excited and happy to be able to bring Steffan along. I can imagine that in between my bouts, I will be able to see him on the sidelines and it already gives me a heartwarming feeling.
“Usually before competitions I would feel very nervous and stressed but this time it’s all positive feelings.”
Lim’s sentiments now are a far cry from the roller coaster of emotions that Lim endured before and after the birth of her son. In 2020, Lim was diagnosed with prolactinoma – a benign tumour located at the base of the brain – after a health check-up. She was advised by her doctor to take a break from competitive fencing and she stepped away to focus on coaching.
She and Lee tied the knot that same year but Lim – who is co-founder and coach of the SG Academy of Fencing with her husband – “could not stay away for too long”. Even when she was expecting her first child, she continued to train till up to three months into her pregnancy.
After giving birth to Steffan, she returned to the training piste after a month and is on track to make the Asian Games squad.
But the journey back to competitive fencing has not been easy, as Lim admitted that she spent many days in tears.
She said: “I have been doing sports pretty much my whole life so I thought it wouldn’t be so hard. I did not expect it to be that much of a struggle. Juggling the baby, work, training and trying to get back into shape was really hard.
“Sometimes mentally, I was not very strong. In training, I was not able to do what I wanted physically. It was demoralising and frustrating.”
The new mum also had to cope with guilt, as long hours spent training and in her coaching job would see her returning home late at night to care for her son. Thankfully for Lim, her relatives help to babysit Steffan when the couple are busy.
She added: “Beyond the struggles in training, when I go home, and then I see my little baby and then I hear about the things he did that day and I see how he is growing every day, I feel like I am missing out on his growth and then all these frustrations pile up and I would just sit in bed and cry to my husband and tell him that I don’t know if I can continue to do this.”
Her husband has been a strong pillar of support despite his own commitments. Lee is also making a return to competition after missing out on the Cambodia SEA Games in May – he was dropped from the squad then for missing three training sessions.
Lee said: “I’m elated for her, knowing this is what she has been working towards and I’m proud to see Cheryl back in action but I’ve told her that her physical and mental health takes priority.
“I am looking forward to this adventure where it’s the first time we are competing with Steffan on the sidelines, and it’s definitely going to be a great motivating factor.”
Noting numerous times during the interview that she “loves fencing”, Lim plans to continue chasing the thrill that she gets from the sport for as long as she can.
She is, however, more modest about her goals for the world championships, where the epee competition begins on Saturday.
She added: “I miss fencing at this level. I am excited and happy to be back. I am realistic about my goals because I have been away for some time. I want to give my all on the first day of competition and see where I go from there.”