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To all the people who say “you can’t have it all”, Penny Koo is proof that you can ignore the naysayers. The accomplished professional tell Crystal Lee how they stay committed to their passions, even if it’s a road less travelled.

The general counsel of AIA doesn’t take no for an answer. In primary school, Penny Koo’s doctor exempted her from Physical Education (PE) classes because of her childhood asthma, but she threw his letter away because she didn’t want to miss out on all the fun and games. When her younger brother made a passing remark that girls can’t do pull-ups, she took up CrossFit and proved him wrong.

It’s been seven years since she first started the strength and conditioning fitness regimen, which combines various movements from high-intensity interval training (HIIT), powerlifting, gymnastics and more. In that time, Koo also competed in the annual international CrossFit Games for several years, juggling training four to five times a week with her work as a lawyer at AIA. Her best placing was fifth in Singapore for her age group in 2019. Most recently, she made the prestigious list of Asian Legal Business’ Asia 40 Under 40 2021, and was a finalist in the Singapore Chief Legal Officer Awards 2021 by the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association.

The fitness enthusiast tells us how she pushes herself to grow in work and in life.

Photography: Lavender Chang; Art direction: Audrey Chan; Hair & Make-up: Zoel Tee; Location: Gravity Club

CrossFit is intimidating. Female athletes are expected to perform the same movements the male athletes do. I still get butterflies in my stomach at the start of a tough routine and at the beginning of every Open workout. I cried and threw up after one particularly gruelling segment in 2015. It was my first Open experience and I had only been training for a few months when I signed up. I failed to finish that workout then, but I’m pretty sure I can now finish well within the time cap.

I stuck it out in the initial days probably because the CrossFit gym I trained at then espoused similar values to mine. The environment was always positive and supportive. “Virtuosity” and “humility” were written on the gym’s whiteboard, together with the workout of the day. These words deeply resonated with me. I thought those were precisely the principles you need to adhere to to sustain success in your sport and in life.

Many, especially women, seem awed when they find out I do CrossFit. Often they would comment they could never do it. My reply is always the same: If I could (and continue to) do it, so can they. Find a good coach, practise good technique, and have fun with it!

There is a social stigma around muscular or strong-looking women – that we are seen as less feminine. I have read shockingly vitriolic online comments on many professional female CrossFitters’ social media pages – the common criticism being that they “look like men”. It is uncalled for and detracts from the fact that they are the top performers of their sport.

Every now and then, I do get self-conscious when people point out the size of my shoulders or biceps. I have had a number of male colleagues who commented that my arms were “big”. My father once asked if I was training to be like Jojo Sinclair (a prominent Singaporean bodybuilding champion from the ’90s). None of the remarks were ill-intentioned but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have the odd day wishing I could be strong but skinny. Those moments rarely last long and they don’t keep me awake at night; I prefer to focus on what my body can do, rather than what it looks like.

I was once stuck in a thankless job. I daydreamed about quitting just about every other day. The work culture was different to what I was used to, and I struggled to build authentic, strong working relationships. I felt like I couldn’t be myself, never mind my best self, at work. But as they say, “no pressure, no diamonds”. It is only through struggle and adversity that you grow. I made a list of skills I had to acquire, adaptations to my working style I had to make, expectations I had to manage, and people I had to learn to work with. I sought out perspectives of trusted colleagues and mentors. Bit by bit, these paved the way to an immensely fulfilling period in my legal career.

This year would be my 10th year with AIA. In a nutshell, my team and I find ways to advance our company’s business growth and transformational strategies in a compliant, fair, responsible and sustainable way. Beyond legal work, I am also passionate about fostering an inclusive and supportive work environment. I co-created AIA’s first Women’s Network, “Where Empowered Women Empower Women”. The intention is to provide a safe forum for women across all levels in the organisation to connect, support and inspire one another, and also to enable our career aspirations while balancing other life commitments.

Be clear which are the rocks, pebbles and sand in your life – prioritise. Fill up your life’s jar with your rocks, and then the pebbles and sand can follow. Even if it seems the jar is already full once filled with rocks, you’ll find pebbles and sand can still fit in. But if you put sand into the jar first, there won’t be any room for the rocks or the pebbles. In other words, if you spend all your time and energy sweating the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are truly important.  I don’t profess to get it right all the time, and there are very often competing priorities. When it comes to tough calls, I ask myself, “If I died tomorrow, would this still be the right decision for today?” That usually sets me on the right track.

This story first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore

The post Penny Koo, general counsel of AIA, on juggling profession and passion appeared first on Prestige Online – Singapore.