Training new champions

Training new champions

Coach Paul's methods have taken HK's junior athletes to historic success

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Hong Kong head athletics coach Paul Wright with top runners Steven Ing, Jimmy Lee and Kelvin Lau.
Hong Kong head athletics coach Paul Wright with top runners Steven Ing, Jimmy Lee and Kelvin Lau.
Photo: Safran Lecuivre/SCMP
What is your expectation today? This is a question heard often from Paul Wright, head athletics coach at the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI). He loves to ask his students about their goals before competition. And this is probably the reason for the blossoming of Hong Kong runners this year.

His students call him Coach Paul. The 40-year-old Englishman became head coach of the Hong Kong athletics team in June last year. Before that, he was the United States national team coach for the 2009 Universiade (World University Games) in Serbia.

"I was coaching a Hong Kong girl named Jessica Siu Nga-ching at university in the US," he explains. "She was an incredible race walker and beat other strong runners in university races. She told me there was a job vacancy in Hong Kong and I applied."

When he arrived in Hong Kong, Jessica introduced him to her former schoolmate Kelvin Lau Wai-ngai. Kelvin, now 18, became the first student in Hong Kong to follow Coach Paul's programmes. He was among the top local runners but struggled to be the best. His friend, long-distance runner Steven Ing, also joined the training. Now both of them are number one in Hong Kong - Kelvin in 800m and Steven in 1,500m.

To increase the competitiveness among the two junior runners, Coach Paul invited another 800m runner, Jimmy Lee Cho-wai, to join their training. "Kelvin has speed and Steven runs with strength. Jimmy is also a runner with very good strength and potential. The three runners can push each other and do better together," he says.

Coach Paul shares stories of athletes who inspired him when he was young. "I tell them about runners like Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram. These are all legendary runners in the UK and my role models. I always ask my students: why can't you be as successful as them in the future? I believe they can also be Olympians and great runners one day," he says.

Coach Paul thinks that runners in Hong Kong and China are trained under coach-oriented methods. "I like my programmes to be athlete-oriented. I want to know their responses and feelings." Under his guidance, the team has achieved tremendous success this year. The athletes have broken 14 Hong Kong records so far.

But the coach is very low-profile. He doesn't talk to the media much, even though his athletes have done so well this year. Rather than talking to the press, he spends more time with his athletes.

In his youth, Coach Paul was a decathlete and represented Britain at the IAAF World Junior Championships. The decathlon gave him a strong foundation as he needed to do well in all 10 track and field events. "I went to the US for college and competed for Clemson University in South Carolina. I was in peak form in my early 20s until I had a serious knee injury," he says.

He realised he couldn't perform to the best of his ability after his injury, so he took up coaching. A few years later, at the age of 26, he became head coach at a US university.

At the Universiade in Shenzhen this August, Coach Paul led the Hong Kong student team to their first bronze medal in the men's 4x100m relay. "Many people were shocked to see our boys win. But I wasn't surprised. I asked the boys before the race and they were very clear that their target was to be finalists," he says. His former US colleagues were amazed that he took the boys so close to the leading relay teams in the world.

Time flies, and Coach Paul's contract with the HKSI will end next June. But, besides the brilliant results he helped his students to achieve, he got a result in Hong Kong, too.

"Last year, my wife gave birth to my fourth child. We named the little boy 'Asia' to mark his birth on this continent," Coach Paul says. "I love Hong Kong and I believe [local] athletes can do better and better."

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