In the spirit of International Women’s Day (IWD), which is celebrated annually across the globe on 8 March, we delve into the lives and experiences of our Sailors Women to better understand their struggles, challenges and inspirations as they strive to make their mark in a traditionally male-dominated sport. 

In this special feature, we turn the spotlight on Amanda Cheong and Denise van Ewijk – sports trainer and performance nutritionist at the Lion City Sailors Elite Academy. 


It is a bustling day at the Lion City Sailors Training Centre, with the Sailors’ Elite Academy teams going through their various training sessions. It is a typically male-dominated football environment but amid all the thorns stand two roses, steadfastly carrying out their respective duties.

In the gym, sports trainer Amanda Cheong is running through a series of exercises for the Under-12 boys while in one of the meeting rooms, performance nutritionist Denise van Ewijk is going through a nutrition program with one of the boys. 

These two women play an integral role in driving the Academy’s professionalism day in and day out, and the Sailors are proud to have them in our ranks. 

Taking the road less travelled

Not many have taken the path that they chose, but the duo was very much determined that it was the right one. 

While Amanda was pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Exercise and Sports Science at Edith Cowan University, the ratio of males to females was much higher – about one female to every four males. And while most of her female counterparts went on to work in personal trainer roles, she was determined to carve out a unique journey in football.

A four-month internship with the National Youth Sports Institute (NYSI) in her final year only served to harden her resolve as she was involved in the launch of the national Unleash the Roar! project, working on performance evaluation for metrics such as 40-meter sprints, vertical jumps, Yoyo intermittent recovery, anthropometrics, and GPS tracking among top youth football athletes in Singapore. 

Undeterred after an unsuccessful first application to join the Sailors Academy, Amanda, now 25, dabbled in personal training and worked in the golf industry as a strength & conditioning coach for eight months, before succeeding at her second bite of the cherry and came onboard in July 2023. 

“The sports and exercise sciences industry is still quite niche in Singapore and my parents weren’t that supportive of me pursuing this dream initially, but I’m here to prove them wrong,” she stated. 

As for Denise, her motivation stemmed from witnessing nutrition being an ‘underappreciated’ part of professional sports and wanting to change that. 

After graduating with a Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from The Hague University of Applied Science in the Netherlands, she started her own sports nutrition company before flying to Singapore with her husband Mike Kerklaan – the Sailors’ current Head of Rehabilitation – when he joined the Sailors Academy in October 2021. 

As fate would have it, the club was looking for a nutritionist as well. Denise fitted the bill, and has stayed on in the Lion City since. 

Her current role entails overseeing and planning the pre and post-match meals for the U13 team all the way up to the First Team, studying how the players’ nutritional habits and patterns affect their on-field performance, as well as conducting individual education talks with the Academy’s players and their parents to ensure they are eating right – huge responsibilities indeed. 

“Nutrition and having a proper meal plan is a big part of an athlete’s foundation, that’s the message I wanted to get out there,” said the 29-year-old, who also conducts nutritional workshops and presentations for an overall improvement of nutritional knowledge within the Academy. 

“Being attentive to food can help in a lot of aspects; it can make you faster, less tired and recover more quickly. There is the misconception that people should only come to me if they have a high body fat percentage and need to lose weight, but there’s so much more to it.”

Amanda’s sports trainer role is varied, stretching across both the medical and performance aspects of the Academy’s work – she leads the U12 and U13 teams in strength & conditioning training and corrective exercises, while also supporting the Under-21 medical team for match-related and rehabilitation duties. 

Her scope of work means that she is regularly in close contact with the males, leading her to be very mindful of the boundaries that should not be crossed. 

“Sometimes when there are injuries near the groin, I’ll remind them that I’ll be checking the area so that they are mentally prepared. It’s important to make sure there’s communication and to get their permission,” she emphasised. 

“I’ll put myself in their shoes – I’d feel intruded if someone didn’t communicate that to me properly, so I always try to bring my point across very clearly.”

In the right environment to succeed

Working in a male-dominated environment could be intimidating and challenging for some, but Amanda and Denise are two strong-willed women who can stand their ground and put across their beliefs. 

And at the Sailors, the club has the robust structure and support system to help them succeed in their roles. 

“I can’t do this alone – at the end of the day, I’m there to help the players – and the coaches – by making sure the team is as fit as possible,” explained Denise, who has previous experience working with players from Ajax Amsterdam and ADO Den Haag back home in the Netherlands. 

“Fortunately, all the coaches are onboard here and there’s a lot of communication. For example, if there’s a player with an injury and the medical department feels nutrition can be helpful to him, they’ll send this player to me. If, say, this player has been very slow lately and often getting tired, then I’ll look at the case – sometimes it’s the case that he is just gaining a bit of weight which is not beneficial for his performance.” 

Indeed, instead of feeling overlooked as a minority in the workplace, both Amanda and Denise feel comfortable and are embracing the plus points that comes with being female – such as simply looking more approachable and having a softer side. 

“I think mindsets are changing so people are not so curious any more when there’s a female sports trainer around. Parents are often very receptive to me, and are quite open with sharing their experiences with their kids,” shared Amanda. 

“I can see they’re very relaxed and accepting of things I explained to them, such as what to do when their kid suffers a concussion, where else they can do to help, etc. That’s very heartwarming for me.” 

Denise agrees wholeheartedly that having a softer side is an advantage, and perhaps the strongest reason for having greater diversity in the workplace. 

“I think the world is already hard enough, especially for these boys. We demand a lot from them at our Academy and I’m definitely strict in the moments that I have to be, but I think it’s important to provide a listening ear and be someone they can come to when they’re facing issues,” she added. 

Pushing ahead

Denise is proud of the progress she has made since joining the Sailors Academy – from taking one year to assimilate into the local culture and understanding Singaporeans’ eating habits, to now building up a proper system and approach to sports nutrition. 

All the boys in the various Elite Academy age-group teams now have their post-training meals – focused on providing them more protein – at the Sailors Training Centre, which gives her more control over the players’ dietary habits. Denise is determined to keep changing mindsets and perceptions, even though there have already been significant improvements. 

“It’s not easy in the hustle and bustle of Singapore life, where there is a huge culture of having takeaway food and the food habits are focused on efficiency. There’s also a stigma that healthy foods are not tasty, but that’s totally not true,” she emphasised. 

“I would say that overall, the players’ curiosity has improved. They now take the initiative to come up to me, wanting to know more about their own bodies and what they can do to improve their nutrition – and I hope to see more of that.”

Both Denise and Amanda are determined to forge ahead in their journeys – with the latter hoping to make the step up to support the club’s First Team one day – and hope their stories can inspire greater inclusivity, which is the theme of International Women’s Day 2024. 

“I want to set a good example to other females who aspire to work in the sports industry. Probably if there’s more females in and around this environment, they will not feel so intimidated. For me, just come in and do it!” said Amanda. 

Echoing these sentiments, Denise is proud of the women in the Sailors ranks – lauding the courage and growth of Amanda as well as Nur Ain Salleh, the first female scholar of the Sailors Elite Academy. 

“We have strong girls here raising the bar each day and that’s an inspiration to the other females. It does not take that much for women to break the barrier – the key is having a clear idea of what you want to achieve and a  vision of what you set out to become. 

“As long as your dreams and the organisation’s objectives are aligned, I don’t think it matters if you’re a male or a female.”