Grace Young w 100

Singapore's bowling icon Grace Young, at age 27, with her medals from the 1989 SEA Games, when she was the most bemedalled athlete. All photos courtesy of Grace Young.

A 21-year-old walks into into a bowling alley with friends and picks up a bowling ball for the very first time. She impresses a fatherly coach who invites her to train with the national youth team.

Six months later, she wins her first tournament. It sets her on the fast lane to becoming a Singapore sporting legend and a sports news anchor.

“What are the chances?” Grace Young, seven-time SEA Games gold medallist and three-time Sportswoman of the Year in the 1980s and 1990s, asked Salt&Light.

“With my approach and attitude towards sports, I wanted to know how to bowl the right way.”

“People talk about coincidence. There is no way anybody can draw out and create such a journey – except God,” said Young, now 58. 

Her dad with “unwavering persistence” brought the Young children to church every Sunday. Grace, the sixth of seven siblings, remembers falling asleep in his lap at church when she was little.

But she drifted away from the faith in her teens. 

And at age 19, her world was rocked when she suddenly lost her dad to a heart attack. It was a “double whammy” because 100 days later, she lost her then-boyfriend to an accident.

Double whammy

“I was devastated,” Young said.

“I was really close to my dad and we had a special relationship.  My dad was always very encouraging and extremely supportive of what I do in sports or music.” Young played the organ at that time.

Grace at age 4, with her dad. Through his  “unwavering persistence” in bringing the family to church”, Grace says her faith “took root”.

Of her then-boyfriend, she said: “At that age, you think he’s the guy you’re going to marry.”

Did she find comfort in God during that time? “I don’t think so. I felt that I had to get away, disappear, just be on my own. I was searching and questioning. It was just awful.”

“God made me, so He knew what my desires were. I always dreamt of being some top international athlete.”

Two years later in 1984, she walked through the door that would change the course of her life. 

“With my approach and attitude towards sports, I was – and still am – all about correct techniques and wanted to know how to bowl the right way.”

(Grace played softball up to Combined School level. She also played badminton, tennis and swam.) 

She stood behind national bowling coach – Victor Tham – and the national youth team and watched them. “He was so sweet to me. He said ‘hello’ and we started talking.

“He had such a smiley face, was so welcoming, and was so fatherly.”

“In those days, who talks about going full-time into sports especially in a tiny island like Singapore?” 

Tham invited Young to join their training sessions after watching her carry out his instructions to the letter.

Barely six months later she burst onto the national scene, winning her first tournament.

“I loved it. I thrived in the sporting arena. It was a big thing for me,” said Young.

Did she see God’s hand in it? “God made me, so He knew what my strengths were and what my desires were. I always wanted to be some world class, top international athlete.

“That was only a dream. Because in those days, who talks about going full-time into sports especially in a tiny island like Singapore?” 

“I felt like there was some hope of living my dream, some chance that I could maybe experience some of this.”

“Did I win by chance?”

Tham, her mentor and coach, passed away in 1989. 

Young was devastated. 

“That was really the time I questioned, ‘Am I in this for the right reasons?’ ‘What am I doing?’ ‘Did I win by chance?'”

She thought about the time over the last five years that Tham and others had sacrificed for her. Coaches in those days were all part-timers with other full-time jobs.

She had trained with her coach for five years and she had to make a decision about her future.

The training programme Grace devised paid off. The newspapers devoted columns to her bowling feats for Singapore. In this news clipping from Grace’s collection, The Straits Times named her one of Singapore’s 50 Greatest Athletes.

“I sat down and said, ‘If I’m going to continue doing this (professionally). I need a proper plan, a proper programme. And I have to make it work.'”

The ardent sports fan and perfectionist read up on sports psychology and all she could on the training regimes of international sports stars.

She hit the gym to build strength and stamina. She put together a mental checklist the night before each competition so that she would not be distracted by surprises, but would be able to fully concentrate on the game.

“I questioned, ‘Am I in this for the right reasons?’ ‘What am I doing?’ ‘Did I win by chance?'”

She put together a holistic approach – incorporating technical, physical, mental and emotional facets – into her training. 

“I tried everything I could. I read and drew up a programme and just tried to figure stuff out because I wanted to make it work. I was determined to make it work, had to make this work, since I’d already put in five of my formative years.

“In those days, support was not quite the same for athletes. We weren’t that advanced in sports then, unlike these days when the athletes are really fortunate to have all sorts of support for everything.

“That year was my watershed year. Within the same year, I won the Singapore Open (a tournament when the world comes to Singapore to compete) with an amazing average. That was such a great encouragement for me.”

She went on to become the most bemedalled athlete at the SEA Games in that same year.

“God did so much. It was real assurance and affirmation that, ‘Come on, the door has opened for you to do something.’ But did I see it then?

“Back then, it was, ‘Hey, I can do this.'”

Gritting it out 

Young persevered through different injuries – including one to her back in 1991, when she pushed through the pain to win two golds for Singapore in the Manila SEA Games.

While preparing for the Singapore Nationals in 1996, she suffered tendonitis. 

But made it to the finals.

Before the televised stepladder finals, she drove to her sports doctor to get shots to numb the pain and tide her over.

“My fingers were completely busted,” she shared. “I could either give up my spot as leader, or I just play it out.”

She was the defending champion for two years in a row. If she won this finals, she would take home the challenge trophy. “It was important for me not to give it up.”

In the one-and-a-half hours before the televised stepladder finals, she drove to her sports doctor to get shots to numb the pain and tide her over. “It was so painful. Usually, when you have these shots, you’re supposed to just rest afterwards. But I was going on to finish the finals.

“I had to improvise and deconstruct the game to cater to that pain. And to hopefully finish well. All I could do was palm the ball in my hand, toss it and create a bit of a spin. It worked. My opponent thought I was faking injury.”

Media darling. A fraction of book articles and newspaper clippings featuring Grace’s career: Her coaches (in book, above centre), and meeting then President Wee Kim Wee (left photo).

Young brought home the challenge trophy.

She rushed back to the doctor for two more shots for her fingers which had ballooned.

Staying for love

Injuries set in, and after the 1998 Asian Games and 15 years in bowling, Young “slipped away quietly” from bowling without announcing anything “in case bowling became a competitive Olympic sport”.

“It was a little sad for me to call it a day.” 

God opened another two doors for her. 

She was planning to go to the UK to get back into  theatre – her other love – to the extent of putting down money for accommodation. 

Then the already-seasoned sports news presenter got “a lucrative offer” from the Television Corporation of Singapore (now MediaCorp) to anchor a sporting programme.

Grace and husband Roy Diao (right) with their son, Kenneth.

She thought she would defer going to London for a year. She never went. Because American Chinese Roy Diao – whom she would marry in 2000 – “came into the picture”. 

They had met earlier in 1988 at the gym just before she disappeared for three months for the Asian Games. 

“I suppose God wanted me to stay in Singapore for his purposes.”

“I think God’s been constantly reaching out to me to run back to Him. I know that for a fact through my sporting life.”

Reboot at 38

In 1999, she and Diao were preparing to get married. Their search for a church led them to St George’s Church

Young was sitting in the pew when she noticed a little card for the Alpha programme that said: “Who is Jesus?”

“I asked myself, ‘Do I really know this God of mine? Really, really?’ I’ve talked to Him through my entire life even though I’ve drifted away. I still say prayers, I still think of Him. But who is He really? 

“Why have I been so blind to His presence? And that’s because I was completely, totally self-absorbed.”

“I looked at the brochure and thought: I should be so ashamed of myself. I can’t even answer fully who He is. He’s a dear friend, He’s my Saviour. I really should know Him a little better.”

And so she attended the course. 

“Everything was very refreshing for me. God has always been around. Why have I been so blind to His presence? And that’s because I was completely, totally self-absorbed and consumed with the ways of the world and all that was going on in my life.

“That’s how my walk with God got rebooted at age 38. It was like a fresh start for me, a new life.” 

She’s still very much in touch with the ladies from her Alpha group. 

“When I read in church, it’s like I’m telling you a story. And that’s because I get it every single time.”

Through the years, Young has been involved in facilitating Alpha programmes and various ministries, including singing as part of the worship team – yet another opportunity to use the numerous talents that God has blessed her with.

Hungry to learn more about Her Saviour, she completed years of BSF, and was searching for her what-next. One day at St George’s, she saw a white board with names on it. A verger told her that it was used by Precept leaders who use the church facilities to run the course. Which is why it was not highlighted at church.

“It was like God continuing to present to me, ‘This is your next option to be with Me, to learn about Me.'”

Of the foundation God has given her through BSF and Precept, she said: “When I read in church (another ministry she is involved in), it’s like I’m telling you a story. And that’s because I get it every single time. And that’s why I enjoy it so much. To be able to understand His Word and share it, and just allow God to use me is an honour beyond imagination.”

Embracing her memories

In the book Game For Life: Lives Made Extraordinary of 25 Singapore athletes, Young shared: “Somewhere in my heart there is a memory chip that stores these treasured moments to be savoured by me alone.” 

She told Salt&Light: “You stand on the podium, and you’re just completely locked up in your throat and you’re not able to sing the National Anthem …

“I haven’t found the adjective for it. The emotions keeps building and you feel like you’re just bursting with this aura.

Skiing is a favourite of the sporty Diao family. Between them, they golf, cycle, swim, play tennis, football, basketball and more.

“At that time, I didn’t think about it. Now that I know God so well, He was in every moment of it. And He was what I was glowing about. He is the Facilitator, He is the Creator. He journeyed with me every step of the way. There was no way I could have done any of it if not for Him.”

Her memory chip “is not for boasting purposes. It sustains you through your life”. 

‘The memories become little boosters when you are low, when you think you can’t manage to do something, or you think that something is impossible. Then these sorts of memories carry you forward. I know everybody has these nuggets of strength. It doesn’t have to be a championship.

“God has kept me healthy and physically well. I am not missing anything.”

“Nobody’s life is smooth sailing. So whatever you have gone through, and because you are still around, it just shows that you’ve overcome something. And so that alone is enough to put away in your memory bank to help you forward when it’s needed. 

“God is good. We have a good, good Father who is constantly using these opportunities to remind us, to use us.” 

Does she miss competitive sports or television?

“God opened all those doors. He created the opportunities. So that’s all part of my journey, in knowing how mighty He is to be able to allow me to achieve what I did. So I embrace it, but I don’t miss it.

“I love the competitive arena and still get it from tennis. God has kept me healthy and physically well. I am not missing anything. What I miss, if ever, is time with Him.

“I can’t imagine life without Him.”

Part 2 of Grace Young’s story on miraculous encounters with God is here:

“I don’t miss the sport. I would miss the Holy Spirit if He decided to leave”: Former national bowler Grace Young

“God doesn’t need a gold medallist to glorify Him”: A national athlete’s journey of faith

“Even rivals should be respected”: The story behind the Red Sports movement

About the author

Gemma Koh

Gemma has written about everything from spas to scuba diving holidays. But has a soft spot for telling the stories of lives changed, and of people making a difference. She loves the colour green, especially on overgrown trees. Gemma is Senior Writer & Copy Editor at Salt&Light.