What has kept the both of you going in the sport?
Justin: It’s been a long journey. There were a lot of difficult moments when it might have been hard to continue in terms of funding, in terms of us going through different phases of our lives… But what’s kept us going is just that we love sailing, we love sailing with each other. We know that this is an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often and if we can still do it and have the passion to do it, let’s just try to do it for as long as possible.
Denise: We are quite lucky that we are able to continue this journey because, through these 10 years, we also got injured quite a few times. What he says is true – we are getting older so we’re probably nearing the end of our journey. So we’re trying to just be excited and happy about travelling and all that.
What do you enjoy most about sailing?
Denise: For me it’s being able to race competitively and also travelling the world. When you race, it is very exciting and high adrenaline. I feel like I can’t find that in other things so maybe that’s what brings me back to racing all the time.
Justin: I love the process of constantly working on things to get better. When I feel like I’m stagnant, that’s when I lose a lot of motivation. When I feel like there are things I need to work on… making all those incremental steps, that’s what really drives me. I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to sail with my wife and it makes it very special to have this whole journey with someone that I really care for.
What is the best and hardest part about competing together as a married couple?
Justin: There are so many things that we get to experience together. The hardships, that is what is truly memorable about the whole journey. What’s hard is when we first started sailing as a team, I wanted to be able to separate what is professional sailing life and what’s personal, but over time I realised that it’s not possible.
Denise: I would say it’s difficult because we are both very competitive on the water. On land, it’s important to communicate and remember the goal that we have: that we’re always trying to get better as a team, and to focus on that instead of blaming each other.
Some athletes who have been to the Olympics have said that to be an Olympian, you have to be a little crazy. Do you agree with that?
Denise: I don’t think it is just an Olympian thing. If you want to be a full-time athlete in Singapore, you have to be a bit crazy because there are opportunities that you give up and you don’t lead a normal life.
Justin: Especially when you’re balancing full-time work, then you’re training before and after work. And on the days you’re not working, you’re training. When she (Denise, who is a nurse) was doing night shifts, it was very hard.
Can you describe how physically demanding it is to sail a Nacra 17?
Justin: It’s like balancing on a tight rope, trying to balance across this very narrow boat where you feel like you’re going to fall at any point but, at the same time, you have to go fast. You can’t stop, you have to always be on that edge – if you don’t go fast you’re going to be last, but by going fast you are at risk of falling to your death (laughs).
Mentally what is the most challenging part about sailing?
Denise: For me, it’s the fear of injury. When the wind is very strong or at the limit of what our boat can sail, then I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be injured. I just want to sail tomorrow’.
Justin: Trying to understand the big picture, thinking long term. I’m always someone who is impatient to make that step quickly. We were in Spain for an eight-day training camp… In the morning, we would go to the gym, then go straight on water all the way until night, then rest and do it again. We were improving very fast and then on the last day, a mishap happened during one of our manoeuvres – she fell off the trapeze and her leg went into the water and because we were going very fast, the pressure hit her knee and she tore her medial collateral ligament (grade 3) and was out for three months. That was a big lesson for us.
What are you like the night before a race?
Denise: I don’t think there’s anything except for the Qingdao (leg of the International Sailing Federation World Cup in 2015) one, we were a bit mad. Basically, there were 10 boats but we were the only Singaporeans and there were four Chinese. Only the winner qualifies (for the Rio Olympics) and we were very scared they would touch our boat.
Justin: It was because Hong Kong had protested the Chinese for team racing, which means that all boats go against one boat to let their top sailor win. We did witness it but it’s hard to prove in the jury.
Denise: We would stay with our boat very late and we’d go home and our coach would ask what time we wanted to go down the next day. And we’re like, ‘Let’s go at 6am’ and he’s like, ‘What? Your race starts at 12’. We were a bit mad because it was very high risk. The day before the event, we were like we needed to flip the boat to check everything because if you race and something snaps, you’re dead. That race still counts to your points so we were very careful.
How are you similar to your zodiac animal – the sheep/goat?
Denise: We like to sleep. I don’t know if sheep like to sleep but we like to sleep.
Justin: If there’s no limit, you won’t see us in the day.
Denise: They’re also very fierce, but they have the appearance of being very calm.
Name: Denise Lim and Justin Liu
Age: Both 32
Asian Games event: Nacra 17
Achievements: International Sailing Federation World Cup Qingdao gold (2015), Kieler Woche bronze (2023)
As Mentioned in
The Straits Times: Sailing: Sailing through seas and life together.