Swimming is boring, says star athlete Zoe Cheung Chi-kiu . “It’s stagnant,” she continues. Like many students her age, she’s obsessed with K-Pop – so Zoe uses that obsession to her advantage.
“Sometimes,” she confides, “I will imagine my favourite group, Bangtan Boys, standing at the opposite side of the pool.” She says it really helps her to pour on the power.
But like many Hong Kong athletes, the St Clare’s Girls’ School student finds it tough to keep up her academic results and her sporting achievements at the same time. It is really tough to be a full-time athlete in Hong Kong.
“An athlete only makes half as much as, say, a pharmacist,” she points out. “Yet, athletes need to put in a lot more physical training. On top of this, athletes don’t get a comprehensive retirement scheme. What will happen to us after our last race? We don’t know.
“The only thing I can do is to manage both my studies and my sport, and decide what to do after the DSEs.”
The 16-year-old has earned her swimming honours, with two gold medals in the 400m freestyle at the Hong Kong Age Group Short Course Swimming Championship (15-to-17-year-old girls) in March, and a silver in the women’s 200m freestyle at the 5th Hong Kong Games in May last year.
All she can do is hope that local schools and universities will provide more programmes for talented athletes, similar to the one run by the Hong Kong Sports Institute and two institutions from the Elite Athlete-Friendly School Network – the English Schools Foundation and Lam Tai Fai College (LTFC). That programme, she points out, allows athletes flexibility in their studies, so that they can let their sports come first, and not have to stress about an uncertain future because their exam results are weaker than they should be.
But that’s not all. Zoe says swimming is something of a Cinderella sport that doesn’t get the attention given to athletics.
“Most students at my school are not interested in swimming,” she says. “Even though we have a gala every year and a month of swimming lessons in the curriculum, the swimming team gets far fewer resources than the athletics team.”
St Clare’s principal Lucia Lau Fung-yi says the school does not have the luxury of choosing what to invest in. “As our school is a government-funded school, our resources primarily need to be used for educational purposes.”
Zoe dreams of more sports facilities and activities at her school. She wishes big stars like Stephanie Au Hoi-shun and Alex Fong Lik-sun would drop by some time and say a few words. Oh, and she wants more respect for athletes.
“The mindset of Hong Kong people needs to change,” she says, “and athletes should be given a higher, more stable income. Some people think that only students who can’t do well in academics become athletes.”
Zoe is looking ahead to the fifth Asian Schools Swimming Championships which will be held in Indonesia from May 24-31. But something nags at her: she hopes she won’t repeat one of her more cringeworthy moments.
“I forgot to take my glasses off, and put on my swimming goggles,” she says. “I was in the lane and ready to go, and I still didn’t realise I was wearing my glasses.
“The judge asked me if I was ready, and the spectators were laughing at me!”