Hong Kong's top young athletes are battling away from the arena for once - to win the Sports Person of the Year title in the South China Morning Post's Student of the Year Awards. The competition is being held for the first time since 2006.
Eighteen of the 20 shortlisted candidates were interviewed by a panel of judges at Hong Kong Jockey Club in Happy Valley on January 27.
The two other finalists for the influential awards were playing for Hong Kong at a table-tennis competition in Portugal, and they were interviewed via Skype on the same day.
The judging panel featured Noel Prentice, SCMP's sports editor, Professor Chung Pak-kwong, head of sports science at Baptist University, and Alex Fong Lik-sun, a former swimmer turned singer and actor, who won the award in 1997.
"I think student athletes need a role model and the winner of the sports award can take on this role," says Fong, once known as "Little Flying Fish" as Hong Kong's backstroke and individual medley record holder. He swam in both the men's 200metres and 400m individual medley and 200m backstroke events at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
"The interview process reminded me of my 1997 interview. But I think this year's candidates are much better prepared."
Fong was particularly impressed by the personal introduction in English by Diva Xie Dongyi, who is a member of Hong Kong's sabre fencing team.
Diva, 16, a Form Six student at Kiangsu-Chekiang College (Sha Tin), started to learn English only eight years ago after arriving here from Guangdong province.
"I'm delighted to be recognised for my sporting efforts by being invited to attend the interviews," Diva says. "My parents are very traditional Chinese and wanted me to focus on my studies. So early on, they didn't support my decision to take up fencing, but I insisted.
"I kept battling and I have realised my dream. I'm able to represent Hong Kong in competitions abroad after gaining permanent residency last year."
Diver Chloe Lee Kee-yi, 16, a Form Five student at St Teresa Secondary School, says she faces many difficulties in the sport.
"Hong Kong lacks diving facilities, so divers must share the same Kowloon Park pool as other national squads, such as water polo and synchronised swimming," says Chloe, who competed for Hong Kong at the 2012 Fina World Junior Championships.
"During school holidays, I have to travel to Shenzhen, where there are better training facilities.
"My dream over the next five years is to compete at the 2019 Asian Games. My ambition is also to be a diving coach in future and help the next generation of competitors."
Wheelchair foil and sabre fencer Jake Leung Siu-lun, 22, a Form Five student at Tuen Mun Catholic Secondary School, was a keen swimmer before spinal surgery for a tumour left him having to use a wheelchair. "I was forced to halt my HKCEE exams and spent three years in hospital after the diagnosis," Jake says. "Then my physiotherapist encouraged me to take up fencing while undergoing rehabilitation in hospital."
Jake says it remains a challenge to attend regular training sessions. "I train three hours at a time four days a week and it's very physically demanding," he says. "Travelling is just as tiring for me. I live in Tuen Mun, but train at the Hong Kong Sports Institute in Sha Tin. It's a long way to travel by MTR and I can't go by bus as [I can't guarantee] buses will have space for wheelchair users. Nevertheless, I'm still keen to keep doing fencing; it's my hobby now.
"I'm trying to strengthen my left arm to help provide support when I lean forward to attack an opponent with my right hand."
Jake's efforts helped him win the silver medal in the men's category B individual foil event at last July's under-23 IWAS Wheelchair Fencing World Championships in Warsaw, Poland.
Chung says he realised during the interviews that athletes faced a big challenge balancing sports training and studies.
"These future stars are at their prime in terms of developing their sports potential, but Hong Kong parents usually prefer them to do academic work rather than full-time training," Chung says.
"It means youngsters face a tough time focusing on both things.
"I fully support the idea of giving greater flexibility to student athletes at my university, and will continue to push to improve arrangements to help accommodate their needs and support these talented students."