SINGAPORE (Mar 12): While John Wilkinson and Stephen Langdown may be 13 years apart, age is the least of their differences. Wilkinson is perhaps best known among S. League fans as the midfielder who last played for Tanjong Pagar United FC in 2013. At 39, he continues to wear many hats, including as a father of four and a football pundit on TV. Langdown, who turns 26 this year, first took up Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu out of interest after representing Singapore as a national sprinter in his youth. He achieved a 2-2 record under the ONE Championship banner during his three-year stint as a professional mixed martial arts fighter.

“I first read about Stephen in a magazine, and I like MMA. So, I thought I would kind of follow him. After my wife and I watched him fight in KL, I had aspirations of trying out to be an MMA fighter and approached him to coach me,” chuckles Wilkinson. “It was only when I started MMA sessions that I realised a lot of the training elements were similar to those of football — it’s all about being very dynamic, going from a complete standstill to 100 miles an hour.” 

Wilkinson is no doubt the chattier of the two, and as he answers each question eagerly, I notice Langdown casting admiring looks at his long-time friend and, more recently, business partner. 

Nearly five years after their first encounter, Wilkinson and Langdown joined forces last December to open their own space at the third floor of a shophouse on Lorong Telok. It was aptly named Slingshot Fitness Centre, after its owners’ endeavours to help their clients slingshot to fitness. 

“Fitness is tied to a lot of other things in life as well. It helps you to move and feel better in general. We get clients who come in and get a little bit scared or out of breath during training because they don’t know what to expect of themselves. It’s our job to push them out of their comfort zone and we want them to know that it’s fine — it’s a good thing,” says Langdown. 

“There is just so much to learn from exercise; people often find out from it that they are tougher than they thought. That’s something which definitely carries over in other aspects of your life: You learn that your problems are solvable, and when you face hardships, sometimes you just have to keep your head down and march on."

The 1,400 sq ft studio is divided into two main training zones — one with concrete flooring and a variety of boxing gear, the other a synthetic turf where a myriad fitness equipment is laid out — to represent Wilkinson and Langdown’s respective corners, where they each conduct their sessions for individual clients. Langdown tells me during our tour of the studio: “Anywhere the mats are laid out is my space, and John’s is wherever the grass [artificial turf] is.” 

Boys and their toys
“This is a skills net. Basically, we try to get clients to have a game of foot tennis or even hand tennis with this after a HIIT [high-intensity interval training] session. The goal is for them to concentrate even when they are tired, and at the same time recover in the quickest time possible,” says Wilkinson as he pulls out a collapsible net from the corner of the studio and begins to set it up on the turf. While he does this, Langdown helps straighten the other end and the two dive into a perfectly synchronised game of hand-tossing the ball back and forth over the net. 

“What this does is it teaches you to concentrate when you are fatigued. At the end of the day, I can’t tell you not to be tired; but this simple exercise can train you how to breathe properly, especially during recovery time in between or after a workout,” Wilkinson says.

“Anybody can perform while they are not tired. But can you perform and not make mistakes even while you are under pressure? It’s a fun element [using the skills net], but it’s also part of the training.” 

So far, they have invested almost $100,000 in their business venture, a significant portion of which is spent on buying new equipment, or what the duo call their “toys”. Aside from kettlebells and other strength training weights common in regular gyms, the ever-growing collection also comprises a variety of outdoor sports aids and accessories. They say another set of gadgets is due to arrive soon — BlazePods, portable, modular workout devices with a network of touch-capacitive sensors and lights linked to a proprietary mobile app. 

“We’re always bringing in new toys every now and then, but Stephen is careful not to let me spend too much,” confesses Wilkinson. “He’s a little bit like my wife. We have the company account, but I have to ask for his permission whenever I want to purchase something. He holds the purse strings.” 

Fitness by design 
Aside from offering athletic development classes as well as combat and football fitness sessions to MMA and football enthusiasts, the duo also designs HIIT circuit workouts based on each individual’s long-term lifestyle and immediate physical state. Looking ahead, they also plan to roll out group classes that will cost significantly less than the one-onone and private group training sessions currently offered.

Wilkinson says that, although he and Langdown do conduct specialised MMA and football training sessions as former pros, aspiring athletes are but only a small portion of their target audience. “We realised that the most fun comes from training ‘regular people’ rather than professional athletes, people who want to get into or stay in shape and want their own space to train flexibly. Because everybody has different fitness levels, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to attaining your fitness goals,” says Langdown.

“A lawyer or banker, for example, would more likely be more stressed out or knackered when he comes in at the end of the day [to work out]. So, we have to be able to tailor the course for him accordingly.”

It just so happens that I unwittingly test their aptitude for situational adaptability when I come in for my trial HIIT session at Slingshot slightly hung over from accidentally consuming too much champagne the night before. As I feebly explain my present physical state to Wilkinson and Langdown, they exchange brief glances before making adjustments to the circuit they have set up for me. While waiting for them to make the finishing touches, I notice a workout list scrawled out on a whiteboard by the entrance, and realise that it has been planned out for especially me. It reads:

  1. TRX — Pulses
  2. Wall medicine ball (Rugby throws)
  3. Ridge — Hip raises
  4. Battle ropes
  5. Jelly — Plank hold
  6. Ladders — footwork
  7. AquaBag — Quickfire
  8. Resistance Band
  9. Medi-ball — Floor slam
After Langdown takes me through what to me is a surprisingly strenuous round of stretching, the LED countdown timer goes off. What happens next is a blur of frantic movement, house music playing in the background, and Wilkinson barking words of encouragement as I struggle to complete each item on the list within minute-long intervals. Each station comes with its own unique arrangement of equipment and, looking back on it all, a rather thrilling set of challenges.

Wilkinson later explains that he and Langdown had planned out my HIIT workout programme the evening before. He says, “We talked about what your day-to-day would probably entail, and concluded that while you probably don’t have strict, regimented office hours, you do have deadlines to rush. So, as you are used to working at a 100 miles an hour, what we aimed for was to make each HIIT station super quick and super slick. For the stations with the medicine balls, there was also no point giving you super heavy weights to throw around because, based on our general observations, Asian girls tend to have weaker upper torsos compared with other parts of the body.” 

They had originally planned a slightly more intense workout for me but had to drop the intensity to accommodate the fatigue and dehydration from my hangover. “We reduced some of the weights and made certain stations, such as the footwork drill, a bit simpler. Some people might come in late with only half an hour left to train before they have to head off for work, or maybe the phone rings mid-way… Then we’ll have to change their programme on the fly to ensure they get the most out of the session,” says Langdown.

Transformations in motion 
It is just slightly over two months since the official opening of the fitness centre, and the men are already handling an average of three clients each on a daily basis. One promise that the pair have made to clients of Slingshot FC is that they will always receive guidance and training from a former professional athlete, even if the client base eventually grows too large for the both of them to handle alone.

Wilkinson, for instance, is already looking to rope in a friend of his — S. League player Liam Shotton, who is also the elder brother of Birmingham City player Ryan Shotton — to help out at Slingshot. “We want to set ourselves apart from the competition by creating an environment in which our clients can train at ease with ex-professionals,” says Langdown.

For now, the business partners say they are focused on giving their existing clientele their 100%, and are already beginning to reap the fruits of their labour with positive feedback from satisfied clients. A star example is one of Wilkinson’s first clients, a dentist. “When he first stepped into the studio, he was going through some personal troubles, had low self-esteem and was massively overweight. He saw my profile on Instagram and he’d seen me on TV, so he just wanted to come and check out what Slingshot was all about,” recalls Wilkinson. 

“We started off with a series of HIIT sessions and, initially, I could tell he was really out of his comfort zone… A month and a half later, and he’s already lost 9kg and counting. These days, he comes in three times a week in the early mornings, each time with a massive smile on his face and ready to attack the workout session head-on.”

“That guy is an entirely different person now,” agrees Langdown. “If you had met him back then, you probably wouldn’t be able to recognise him now.”

Other than weight loss, one of the biggest changes Langdown has witnessed in his clients is a significant gain in confidence and, more often than not, a close friendship that often forms in the process of training. “The job gives you a very nice insight to people’s lives and who they are, what they’re going through. And that can really influence how you train people. Some are more susceptible to being pushed harder when they’re in a bad mood because you know they can use it as fuel; others need a little hand-holding throughout the session,” he reflects.

Life’s lessons
After my session and over a quick lunch of pho — and between enthusiastic encounters with the restaurant staff who greet Wilkinson and Langdown as though they were old friends — I learn that it would be a mistake to address them as personal trainers or fitness instructors. Instead, Wilkinson and Langdown prefer to describe themselves as studio directors or performance specialists.

Wilkinson explains: “At Slingshot, we don’t want to just focus on achieving physical fitness. What we teach here can be applicable to all aspects of life. Instead of just setting up a circuit or training programme for our clients and just telling them, ‘Off you go,’ we want to understand more about them, build relationships and learn from our clients as much as they learn from us… Because we have been athletes for most of our lives, we don’t know what it’s like to be out of breath crossing the road or climbing the stairs. It’s fascinating to be able to meet people from all walks of life and learn from them.”

The two, who jokingly refer to each other as husband and wife, make their fondness and admiration for each other clear throughout the interview. Despite their different characters, Wilkinson argues that it would be a “nightmare” if he and his partner were too much alike. “Stephen’s very lateral-minded and good with things like rostering and getting things to arrive on time. While I enjoy being more creative and setting up ‘games’ during sessions, Stephen’s very straight to the point by coming in short and sharp, which gets results.”

Langdown chimes in: “We’re very different, but at the same time we get along so well together because we’re on very similar wavelengths too. Over the years, John and I have realised that what one brings to the table is often something that the other lacks. It would be detrimental for either of us to do [this business] alone, which is why we are together now.”