What's in... Eileen Chai's Oakley bag

What's in... Eileen Chai's Oakley bag

Donning her Superman cape, four-year-old Eileen Chai launched herself down the stairs, aiming for the mat at the bottom.

She landed with a thump and smacked her face into the edge of a coffee table. The result: A bloody nose. "That was the last straw for my mum," she said with a laugh. Her mother signed her up for gym training.

Now 36, Ms Chai continues the transformation - from holy terror at home to national gymnast, runner, springboard diver, musician and teacher.

But to begin at the beginning. At seven, she became the youngest SEA Games athlete when she represented Singapore in gymnastics at the 1985 Games in Bangkok. In 1991, she won a bronze at the Games in Kuala Lumpur, despite having a fractured elbow. She was only 13.

At 15, she broke the national 100m hurdles record for her age group. She then quit the sport for springboard diving.

After sitting the O levels, she took a year off to train in China - and struck gold in the 1m springboard category at the Asia Pacific Diving Championship. But diving would lead her to quit sports.

Just before the 1995 SEA Games in Chiang Mai, Thailand, she dislocated her left shoulder. "It popped out of the socket several times during the Games," she recalled. Her assigned coach was absent. So a Thai coach bandaged her shoulder. When she poured out her woes to a Singapore reporter, revealing she had not been allowed to have her own coach from China with her, she was branded a sore loser in the article.

"My trust was broken, my body was broken and my heart was broken. I decided that I'd had enough of sport," she said.

She was only 17. She sat her A levels and entered the National University of Singapore (NUS).

While studying microbiology there, she chanced upon an orchestra rehearsal. She had ditched the violin at five for gymnastics. "So I thought, why don't I pick up violin again?" Within a year, she earned her Grade 8 certification and started playing in the NUS Symphony Orchestra.

Music, she decided after graduation, was it.

Earning a place at the Chicago College of Performing Arts was easy. But all was not rosy. "I didn't have social skills. I lacked self-confidence. I had been living in a cocoon for years," she said.

The youngest of three children of retired company executive Chai Chiap Fam, 72, and housewife Yu Yang Hwa, 67, Ms Chai was home on vacation and at a family wedding when she met a musician she identifies only as "Mr M". They wed three months later, against her parents' wishes, and she dropped out of music school. Her parents and friends thought Mr M was "eccentric" and felt they were unsuited.

"But I thought my love will change him into a better person," she said. Three years later, they divorced.

"Looking back, I think I was running away from reality because I didn't know how to repay my parents for their love and support," she said. She has since wed again. Her husband, Mr Ben Kranen, 51, works in a multinational corporation.

During her first marriage, she qualified as at teacher and was encouraged to return to athletics. Nine years after she last competed in track events, she broke Heather Merican's 30-year-old national 100m hurdles record.

Ms Chai went on to teach physical education and music at St Theresa's Convent and Raffles Junior College before moving on to work in the field of sports. She was in the organising committees for the 2009 Asian Youth Games and the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010 here.

In 2012, she returned to the violin, as a teacher and performer, and wrote her own story, Teach A Life, For Life. It was published in June. She sees it as the start of a movement to encourage people to "share their stories and pass on their life lessons to better the lives of others".

Her dream is to transform them into music.

You can see her perform at the first Singapore International Live Looping Festival Y2K14 at Artistry on Sept 26.

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