Amongst the small handful of Olympians competing in martial arts, “Mighty” May Ooi still stands out.
Most of the Olympic athletes who cross over into into cage competition do so from other combat sports, such as ONE Welterweight World Champion Ben Askren, and often try to make the transition as seamless as possible.
At 41 years old, Singapore’s Ooi is 25 years removed from representing her nation in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, and did so in the swimming pool rather than on the now- familiar mats.
However, it is this experience of elite competition, and the lifetime of discipline it ingrained in her, that sets her in good stead for her promotional debut at ONE: QUEST FOR GREATNESS on Friday, 18 August. The blockbuster event will be ONE’s second this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
“I think people just do not understand the level that I am operating at, because I have been competing since I was 9 years old. I have looked after my body like a machine,” Ooi reveals. “I have always taken care of my body, so when I want it to function at the level I expect it to, it does.”
Such was the former swimmer’s commitment to looking after her body, she studied medicine, and even briefly became a practicing doctor. A typical life in the hospital was not what she was after, however. Instead, she was driven by the pursuit of knowledge that would allow her to understand her anatomy, and further enhance her physical ability.
Between competitive swimming, becoming a doctor, and now being a professional ONE athlete, there was obviously a point in which martial arts entered Ooi’s life. Though her first experience with martial arts happened when she was primary school, it would not take hold until she discovered capoeira in Brazil.
“I was really little. I was in school, and there was a group that came through and did a demonstration. I cannot remember if it was karate or taekwondo, and I really, really wanted to join the class. But my parents said: ‘No, girls do not fight!,’” the Singaporean explains.
“Then I went on a scholarship to the United States at the University of Nevada. My swim coach was a karate black belt, and he made this passing comment: ‘You know what? You would make a really good martial artist.’ It came from the left field, but he just left it at that. He said it a couple of times, but he never pushed it or anything, because it was all about swimming at that time.”
Ooi obviously was obviously drawn towards the art of combat, even if she never had the time to realize it in her adolescence. All of that changed in adulthood.
In 2007, Ooi was mesmerized upon witnessing the hybrid beauty of capoeira for herself in Brazil. She started training with a capoeira coach, who also happened to be a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and that is when her martial arts journey truly began to take shape.
“Mighty” May was fascinated with this new world, and was inspired to learn, progress, and evolve. She committed herself to martial arts with the same tenacity that she did her previous endeavors, later experimenting with Muay Thai and boxing. Eventually, it bore fruit. The opportunity to open a capoeira school in Singapore presented itself, which cemented her desire to remain in sports over medicine.
Ooi wrongly believed her years of competition were over. She thought teaching and refining her own skills were more than enough to keep her fulfilled, until words from a martial arts legend convinced her to try her hand in the cage.
“Competing in martial arts was never a goal. Then came Royler Gracie,” she laughs. “I was training with him for a while, and he said: ‘You need to do this, at least one bout.’ When it comes from royalty like that, it holds a different weight.”
That bout came as an amateur in 2013, but it would not stop there. She turned professional almost a year later, and has since garnered a professional record of 2-2.
“It was not interrupting anything,” Ooi offers, on her decision to continue competing in martial arts. “It is not like swimming, where I had to compete all the time. It was not getting in the way of life. It kept me sharp mentally and physically, and made me have to keep evolving, improving, and getting better.”
Admittedly, the age question gets asked a lot, with many athletes long retired by the time they reach 41, but Ooi dismisses this, and restates the commitment to excellence she has always had, especially when it comes to looking after her body.
Constantly ‘maintaining her engine’ means it will ultimately be desire that forces her hand, rather than physical ability. “Others have this timeline for me, but I told myself as long as I am passionate about competing, as long as I want to, I will keep doing it. When I feel like I do not want to, I will stop. Is it that simple. No complications.”
Ooi’s next step on her martial arts journey happens Friday, 18 August, when she meets Malaysia’s Ann Osman (5-3) in a strawweight battle at ONE: QUEST FOR GREATNESS, which broadcasts from the Stadium Negara in Kuala Lumpur.
Not only is the Singaporean Olympian determined to get the win in her promotional debut, but she is looking to prove to the world that she belongs inside the cage with the sport’s elite. “At the end of the day, martial arts is skill. A little bit of luck, but it is skill, really,” she says. “And I think my skills are good enough to be in there with anyone. My skills will speak for themself.”