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Joey Lee, MD of 9 Dragons Fitness, is fighting to get Hong Kong in shape

Ex-Muay Thai pro welcomes more gyms and more competition.

Barbells, rowing machines and jump ropes – one person’s heaven is another’s torture chamber. Sitting in the gym of former Muay Thai professional fighter Joey Lee, managing director of 9 Dragons Fitness, one of nine CrossFit gyms in Hong Kong, I am embarrassed to find I can’t open the lid of a bottle of water she offers me.

“I played lots of sports growing up, mainly basketball,” says Taiwan-born, Vancouver-raised Lee, taking the bottle back from me and opening it with a flick of her wrist. “After my four years in college, I went to university for two years to study criminology. I started going to a gym well known for having professional Muay Thai fighters and started training there. I just loved it.” 

Lee was asked to spar with a professional female fighter. “She was quite a successful amateur fighter and when I got into the ring to spar with her – I think literally six weeks into training – I felt like this was something I could do. I said to my instructor that I really wanted to fight.”

However, Lee’s mother was not too impressed. “My mum came to my first fight [as an amateur] in 2002. She was so scared and every time I was hit, she would cover her eyes and was almost in tears. She was a bit angry and said, ‘Why would you do this to yourself? I don’t know what you’re trying to prove’. It did take her a while to understand it isn’t just for fighting.”

I wonder why a woman only 1.60 metres tall would want to step into a ring. “It’s like an adrenalin rush as you get in the ring, it’s such a challenge that it’s just you and no one can save you,” she says. “You give everything you’ve got and never back down. From a female perspective, it’s really empowering to be able to do that.”

But it’s more than the adrenalin rush. “Every time I stepped in the ring, I asked myself, ‘Why are you doing this? No more – this is absolutely ridiculous’. But as soon as the bell rings for the first round, the thought process completely reverses. As soon as I finish, I think, ‘Wow, I want to do it again’. Even though I took a complete beating, I was still going OK and I survived.’”

However, the stigma attached to being a female fighter hit home when she came to Hong Kong in 2005 and was the only woman training at a local gym. “All the local guys would always say to me, ‘Oh, who would want to marry you? You’re doing boxing and you’re such a tomboy.’ And these were people I trained with every day … ” 

Lee’s husband, Doug Pieterse, proved them wrong. “He was attracted to the fact we have stuff in common. He hated it when I was fighting, but he was supportive. He understands this is what I do.”

If it is the adrenalin rush that kept Lee fighting professionally, it is her family that has kept her from it since. “I’ve not considered going back to the ring since I’ve had my kids. [My husband] was like, ‘Ok, you might want to reconsider if you want to do it again. You have a family and kids. What if you get hit and get brain damage?’”

Not fighting and training professionally after two pregnancies added 32kg to the former Muay Thai fighter. She thought something had to be done for the sake of her well-being. “My husband sent me to Thailand to do some Muay Thai to get me into shape and motivated again,” Lee says. “There was a guy there who is a CrossFit instructor. He took me through some CrossFit workouts and I just fell in love with it.”

Lee and her husband opened CrossFit gyms in Tung Chung and Central in November 2013. “CrossFit is functional training. It takes gymnastics, weightlifting and metabolic conditioning and combines it into one programme. It’s constantly varied, meaning the workouts are always changing.” 

 Created by Greg Glassman in California in 2001, the CrossFit craze swept through the West and into Asia. However, some have called it cultish or extreme. “I wouldn’t go so far as saying it is cult. Yes, a lot of people follow it, [but that is] because the biggest thing about CrossFit is that it builds community.

“People come here because they love the fact there’s somebody out there to support them. Imagine you’re with 15 other people doing the exact same thing; you want to stop, you look around, and everyone else is tired. But there is a competitive spirit and teamwork. It’s like, ‘Ok, everyone is doing this, let’s do it together, let’s all try to finish.’ Everyone is there to support you saying ‘Come on, a few more, count down your last reps. You can do it.’” 

Lee recalls the recent fads of Thai boxing and martial arts among Hong Kong women. To reach them, she actually wants more competition in the form of more CrossFit gyms. “It’s still too early; the trend hasn’t hit the local community enough yet. I think it will take another few more years.”

She advises people who are interested in trying CrossFit to look for gyms with experienced trainers. 

“If you have no personal training experience, no background in exercise, physiology, biomechanics, and you go straight into opening a gym, you’re not going to know how to be safe; you’re not going to know how to train your clients.” 

She says, although everyone is doing the same workout, the intensity is scaled to fit each one’s capability and fitness.

Although Lee has been a personal trainer for 10 years, she admits her limits. “CrossFit has so many different movements in it, that I haven’t mastered all of them yet. It takes a long time to do that.