Tough, bold and beautiful- Preeti Mohan

Preeti Mohan

A biomedical engineer by qualification, start-up woman by profession, a performing Bharatnatyam dancer, finisher in over 40 races in the past seven years including Danang 70.3 in 2017; Bintan 70.3 in 2017; Davao 70.3 2018; Kapas Marang 6.5K swimathon in 2018; Ironman Malaysia (DNF) in 2018, a lady with an ever-smiling face, a generous heart to help, one of the brainchild behind the Facebook community for IndianWomenTriathletes, mother of two lovely boys, here is Singapore based 38-year-old Preeti Mohan.

Dance, shift and racism

I was born in Chennai, brought up in Mumbai and grew up in Singapore. I think I was born with a passion for dancing; My parents tell me I started dancing at the age of two just watching TV. I formally started learning Indian classical dance form when I was 3 years old. I didn’t play any sports beyond physical education lessons in school. My weekends usually revolved around dance rehearsals and performances from a very young age. I loved it, dance taught me discipline and passion. It allowed me to express myself in a way I truly enjoyed.

I was also a very active child, I would climb everywhere and jump from all sorts of heights. Trees, trucks, buildings, what not! I managed to fracture my foot many times because of this. My mom says she cannot remember a day I didn’t come home injured or scratched.

In 1992, to have a better and secure future, my parents abruptly migrated to Singapore. It was the most challenging phase of my life. My stage shows stopped, dancing came to a standstill. I was my grandparents’ pet, and I missed them a lot, above all, I didn’t have any friends. I had to cope with a completely new culture, a new system. I went from being a spoilt carefree child to needing to become a responsible “teenager” (I was only 11) almost immediately. My father initially hadn’t had a job in Singapore while mom worked night shifts at a factory. Then as things settled, dad got a job and used to travel a lot. Mom picked up a career as a teacher. Finances were tight and my parents worked really hard. We had to be frugal about everything.

Things were tough then. My mom would work all day and study in the evenings, so she would leave early and come back home very late. My brother and I were mostly on our own after school, and we readily participated in our parents’ struggle. My father was proactive in all the housework, and we all had our designated chores. I faced a lot of racism in the school where kids would make fun of me on my complexion, body type, hair or even the shape of my eyes. I had no friends to play around neither in the school nor in the nearby area.

Dancing- my way of letting be me

My teenage years were probably the toughest for me. It was around this time that a priest who befriended my mother in the temple started sexually abusing me at my own home. He would visit in the pretence of seeing my mother. She had recently lost her father and saw a father figure in him. I had no friends and the situation in my house was such that I couldn’t tell my parents what was happening. No matter how hard I tried to avoid him, he would still manage to get me alone. He even sexually assaulted me in the temple a few times. I totally lost faith in religion, God, myself. I was petrified and confused. I couldn’t bring myself to share it with my parents, they had enough going on already.

After a few months my perpetrator left Singapore but my self-confidence had plummeted by then. I hated my body. I felt unclean and ashamed of it. I was sinking into the dark with suicidal thoughts.  So often I would just think of jumping off from a building and just ending my life. I started eating out of anxiety, I would wear baggy clothes and wished I wasn’t a girl. I hated taking photos or looking at myself in the mirror. I had massive trust issues with regards to people, especially men. I had a distinct change in my behaviour. I became guarded from anyone and everyone around, and I went into my shell, and aggression was visible too. Banging doors, screaming, tantrums, were a few coping mechanisms. 

Finally, after four years, I mustered courage and shared the ordeal with my parents. My parents were soothingly supportive and took the situation in their stride. I started setting goals for myself and started working towards them. It was only in junior college and University that I made some really good friends and they changed my perspective that not all men are bad.

My dance teacher, my mami

Around this time, I am grateful I met my dance teacher, my mami, and she took me under her wings. She helped me to find my outlet in dance again and it became my way of  expression. It was my escape, my get away from this world. I could go to dance class and be whoever I wanted to be. I plunged myself into more dancing, to a unhealthy level, I would dance for hours sometimes, where I pushed past injuries and kept dancing. It became an obsession. So often after a performance, my friends would literally carry me home because my ankle ligament tore on stage and I didn’t even realise to stop. It was around this time I started swimming breaststroke (the only stroke I knew) for recovery of my ankle injuries.

One night I was walking alone around my University and a drunken worker staggered towards me and caught me. It was a terrible struggle for me to escape and run back to my room. Sadly that brought back all the sleeping demons. I would see imaginary people in my room and scream in the middle of the night, I had a lot of panic attacks. Thankfully this time my friends came to my rescue and really helped me through that phase. Overtime I started travelling more avidly and backpacked across many countries, even did a solo trip to Europe, overcoming many of my fears and trust issues.

Fast forward to 2006, Sumit came in quite suddenly into my life and swept me off my feet. He helped me to truly heal from my past to a point where I can talk about what happened. He provided me with a safe space of trust.

He has shown me that a good relationship is not about compromise only but also about helping each other grow to achieve more.

says Preeti on her relationship with husband Sumit

I think one of my best decisions in my life was to marry him. He is my rock, my best friend, my biggest support. We married in 2008 and moved to Abu Dhabi, UAE. 

The first high feeling

Life before Tri dicovery

I delivered my first child in 2011. I had a safe pregnancy and was looking forward to a new experience; little did I know about the aftermath. I developed a few complications before and after the delivery like symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD), placenta previa, pre-eclampsia and finally shingles (on the day I delivered). Due to shingles, my entire face swelled up, and I could not open my eyes to see my baby and feed. Like any other first time mother, I had my own set of nervousness and anxiety. It was a challenging phase as more than the infant I had to manage myself. My husband and mother in law became my strongest pillars of support. She would comfort and soothe me as she was worried that I would slip into postpartum depression. After the initial six-months of the difficult time, things started settling in, and I turned into a huge mommy with a whopping 90kgs in my kitty! 

I started working out daily, long walks and strength work. Although I lost 18kgs in one and a half years, my husband made a valid point- how will you sustain this weight loss? He suggested that I look up for a few races or events that will keep me motivated. In 2013, I signed up for TriYas 2014 and found the race pattern pretty interesting. I had never attempted a triathlon before and wasn’t even aware of the format. Even then, I was too enthusiastic and was looking forward to the event, I realised for someone who had never been into sports, I had only 6 months to prepare. I was very diligent in searching through Google and doing as much research as I could find. But I didn’t know anyone who had done tris to reach out and ask.

I got my first mountain bike worth 150 Dirhams and was beaming with joy. Until now I was swimming breaststroke in the pool, but on race day I had to swim in the sea hence, I decided to try out swimming in the ocean. So I ventured into the sea on my own. I could only go in till the water touched my ankle. In the chilly winters of November to December 2013, it was a routine that after dropping my son to the playschool and finishing the necessary chores, I would go to the beach at 10am and venture two inches further in the sea. Finally, in January I could do 2-3 loops (race was in Feb). Whenever I went to the sea, I was always a single one practising moreover struggling with the waves, and jumping at every twig that touched me.

Venturing on my own without worrying about what will happen next is my childhood trait. Back in Singapore after the school got over, I would board a random bus and go around the city. Sometimes I got lost too, and that was the time my mother caught my mischief. I did a similar thing in Mumbai when I was seven years old. I had a dance rehearsal, and due to some communication gap, my teacher was late to pick me up. I went on my own to the centre from Kings’ Circle to Andheri, changing two trains and a bus leaving everyone stunned.

I was unsure about the race, but now that I had registered and invested a lot of time and money, I headed to collect the bib. The race environment was electrifying. I was like a lamb in a slaughterhouse. Athletes of all build and form surrounded me. I meekly collected my kit and bumped into Smita. Ah! what a relief to meet a fellow Indian woman at the race. On the race day, Sumit and my two and a half-year-old son accompanied me. It was an evening race and just after an hour of reaching the venue, my son started running a high temperature. I was in split minds to attempt the race or not. Sumit, my rock, encouraged me to go ahead and race. 

My first race TriYAS in 2014

The event was held in the marina area, and I made a mistake to slide down for a swim than jumping into the water, scraping my feet against the uneven wall. No sooner I was in the water, my foot started burning, and as if that was not enough, someone knocked off my goggles. At 300 meters I held on to the kayak, composed myself and started swimming again. I was the last one to finish the swim course. I then changed into track pants and tee for the bike course(now when I think about this, I feel amused). I was riding my mountain for a triathlon, and I was on cloud nine as the cycling course was on the F1 racing track. Where on earth will I ever get a chance to ride my bike in this beautiful arena. I loved the experience. When I came to rack my bike, everyone else was packing and going, but then I heard volunteers cheering – “give way, biker coming!” I was thrilled as I was probably the last one, yet everyone was cheering. That’s the spirit which attracted me to this community.

The bruises from the scrape was hurting with each step of the run and I was among the last two to finish the race. I was not bothered that the banner was pulled off when I reached the finish line, but I was thrilled to see my supporters (Sumit, my son Pranav, Smita and her husband Suk, another family friend) cheering for me. I had a Euphoric finish.

Smita and me signed up for Abu Dhabi International coming up in two weeks, and in all enthusiasm, we trained together and completed that race too. My journey in tri had started, and I was indeed not looking back.

Race and more races

ITU 2016, finishing with my son

I had my second boy in July 2015, he was a child born with many issues but within 4 months I was back to cycling at 4am. It was my escape, my alone time to cope with the rest of the day. I completed TriYas and ITU event in 2016, and then we unexpectedly moved to Singapore.

I was back to dancing and working in the hospital. My parents helped me a lot with managing kids while I trained, which usually happened when my kids slept. The athletics community was not the same as Abu Dhabi. People were super competitive. If someone was a slow racer, then even the attempt to race was questionable. At that time there were hardly any women in the training groups or multisport races. But unlike UAE, races happened in plenty and throughout the year. 

I learnt how to swim freestyle properly and took part in many rides and runs.  I was also able to try many new formats of multisports including RunSwimRun, SwimRunSwim, etc. I was loving it and I wanted more! I was on a racing high and did almost 20 races in 2016-17 including Ironman Danang 70.3 and Bintan 70.3 in 2017.

In 2018 I decided to take on the Full Ironman and started training for it. I participated in a variety of races to build upon endurance, including Davao 70.3, Kapas Marang 6.5kms swim in Malaysia where we had to swim from one island to the other, NTU Bike Rally – 180km, few half marathons etc. However, I DNFed at Bintan 70.3 2018 in August and the Tour de Kepri 2018 September. Six weeks before Ironman Malaysia, I had a terrible sprain while running and had to stop peak training for two weeks. As my right ankle had chronic injuries since I was young, the ligaments were badly affected. Everyone nagged me not to attempt the race, but Sumit was my support, he said we will go and learn even if we don’t finish.

On race morning, I was very anxious, my ankle was not hundred percent but maybe I could do this. I had a great swim and even managed to finish the bike course not too far from my goal time, I had six hours 45 mins to finish the run. At 13kms, my foot started hurting very badly. I was barely running, it was more like a slow walk drag of my foot, I was filled with doubt to continue or not. 

At 22km, I sat down by the side of the road and had a chat with myself.

Mind: If you quit it’ll be a hattrick DNF, do you want to quit?

Realistic me: there is always another chance to come back

Mind: What will your fellow trainees think about you?

Realistic me: I am racing for myself and not to prove to anyone else

Mind: Will you be able to justify your efforts and your family’s contribution?

Realistic me: I should not be so injured after the race that I become a burden on my family.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and decided to quit at that point rather than try and finish the race and worsen my injury. It took a lot more mental courage to pull out than it did to sign up and train. I had promised Sumit I would come back whole and not broken. Next morning, I took the flight back home. I cried for many many days though. I will go back another year soon, because I know I am persistent.

Ironman is not just a race but a continuous journey.

“Stop comparing and race for yourself” is the principal learning in my athletics journey.

Preeti’s mantra

During my IM Malaysia training, I got carried away and started comparing myself to my fellow trainees. This made me push myself beyond my limits and capabilities, being in constant fatigue and prone to injuries. 

I have since logged out of strava and started training on my own under the supervision of my current friend-turned-coach Smita, who understands me and my problems. I took 2 years to recover from my injuries and slowly come back to my training. 

Back to dancing in Singapore

Mom guilt is probably the biggest challenge I face. I used to train alone at ridiculous hours over the weekends just to make it back home in time for the kids’ activities. I used to feel as a mum the day doesn’t end at the finish line of a race. I don’t go back and rest, because I have to resume mom duties. In order to raise a happy family, the lady of the house has to be happy and filled with energy. So now I am resolved to making the boys more independent. I am not around most mornings, and they know I am training. My husband takes care of everything at that time.

I draw a lot of motivation from my family, my mother is a renowned rangoli artist, she has a Guinness record for the world’s largest rangoli (2003), my mother-in-law is a multi talented woman, who even at this age picks up new things to learn. My father-in-law, 76, is an avid walker, no matter the weather he won’t miss his morning walks. My father started cycling during COVID-19 and raised funds for charity at 71 years of age. Both my kids and husband complete many races each year, including duathlons and fun runs.

I don’t stop myself or restrict myself from trying new things, even things that scare me. I am always making goals and going after them because I believe life is too short to spend complaining and regretting. If you want to do something, don’t over think, at max what will happen? You will fail? So what? In life, it is not that you shouldn’t fall, everyone is going to at some point, but it’s important how fast you get up, dust off and move.

Dance taught me passion and discipline, but triathlon taught me that I can apply these to any field.

says Preeti

I have come a long way in my athletics life. I have met amazing people and made some very close friends, been part of encouraging  groups (One Endurance Abu Dhabi, RockRunners, Rock The Naked Truth, Singapore Women’s Triathlon, Indian Women’s Triathlon club, Women’s Cycling project, and many others)  through my triathlon journey. I do wish to see more women, especially Indian Women in sports and triathlons.

I hope we can create a community that supports women, so that issues such as body shaming, sexual abuse, self doubt do not hold them back from achieving their dreams. This is our responsibility for the next generation. 

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