If there was ever a role model for dreaming big and never giving up, it would be Claudia Lau. At only 5ft 3″ with US 5.5 shoe size, the 23-year-old Hong Konger was told time and time again that she didn’t have the right build to become a “good swimmer” – but boy did she prove the world wrong. Breaking the Hong Kong record for the women’s 200m backstroke, and qualifying for the Rio Olympics in the very last trial event, she now prepares to join Hong Kong’s Olympic squad for the Summer Games. We catch up with the pint-sized champion as she looks forward to fulfilling her life-long dream.
Congratulations! How did it feel to get qualified for the Rio Olympics?
It was a huge relieve and a “dream come true” moment for me. It wasn’t my plan to cut it that close, but knowing that was my last chance to qualify definitely gave me extra motivation for the race. The atmosphere that day was amazing, everyone in the pool was cheering! Most of them were not even from my team, but they were all cheering for Hong Kong and for me. It feels like my life came full circle. Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI) is were I started to learn swimming when I was 6 and here I am 17 years later, making the Olympic team at the same place I started.
Have you always dreamed of taking part in the Olympics?
I have been watching the games since I was a kid, but it didn’t become my dream until 2007 when I first broke the Hong Kong national record in the women’s 200m backstroke and realised I had a chance of making the team. From then onwards it has always been my dream to swim at the Olympics.
How long have you been swimming for?
I started taking lessons at 6 years old when my doctor suggested swimming to strengthen my respiratory system (I used to suffer from asthma), so I have been swimming for 17 years. I started off as a beginner just like everyone else and didn’t swim three times a week until I was 10 years old. Now I have 10 training sessions a week which adds up to over 25 hours of swimming and conditioning.
When did you first discover you passion for swimming?
I’ve always liked water sports and enjoyed being in the water since I was a kid. I don’t think there was a special moment when I discovered my passion for swimming, it gradually built up when I began swimming with a team. Being around my teammates and having fun in and out of the water makes swimming fun. I also enjoy the quietness underwater while swimming, it gives you some “me” time to reflect on your busy day.
What gives you your motivation?
I draw a lot of my energy from my team and teammates. Training with a group of swimmers who share the same goal as me day in and day out pushes me to train hard. With a group of swimmers who constantly support and cheer you on, no matter how hard practices are, I just want to perform my best and not let them down. Before my last qualification race from Hong Kong, I watched my teammate and friend, Connor Jaeger (USA) swim his 400m free at his Olympic Trials. He came back from almost a 2 body length deficit to win the race and made the team. It was truly an inspirational swim and pumps me up for mine.
What is the greatest challenge you face as a swimmer?
There have been moments in my swimming career that made me want to quit. I didn’t improve my time in the 200m backstroke for 4 years (2010 to 2014) and missed out on competing in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics by a very small margin. These setbacks made me doubt myself. I worked hard in those years, but it just wasn’t paying off, so to overcome all of it, I went back to the very first reason that I swim – to have fun. I started to pay less attention to my times and enjoyed the moment being around people. It helped me a lot to re-discover my passion for swimming.
Do you have a lucky charm or ritual before a race?
I don’t do anything special before a race but I do listen to mostly hip-hop/pop music to pump me up.
And how do you relax after a race?
If I have another race coming up in the next day or so, I will get a massage and go to bed early. But if not, I will treat myself to some ice cream and have a nice dinner with friends and family.
Where are your favourite places to swim in Hong Kong?
The Wan Chai Outdoor Training Pool, which officially closed this year and got torn down. We used to train there at 5.30 in the morning before school started – you can watch the sun rise while swimming. The building around us would have seasonal decorations and lights, and it was always fun to look at those when I swam on my back. I also remember there was one time when we decided to wave at people on a double decker bus that passed by, they actually waved back! I have lots of fun memories in that pool – they make up for the hard practices. I also enjoy swimming at the beach, but I don’t get to do open water swimming that much due to my busy training schedule.
What are your favourite things to do when you’re not training?
I love going out and trying all the street food in Hong Kong. All the egg tarts, egg waffles, fish balls, siu mai, doufu hua etc. That’s also something I missed the most while I was training in the US. I am such a foodie, I always joke that the only reason I work out is to consume more yummy food.
What preparation have you got planned before you head to Rio?
I went back to Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) to train for the past two weeks in order to adjust for the time difference. We also start adjusting our practices and meal times once we get into the village, since prelims will start at 1pm and semi-final/finals will start at 10pm.
What are you looking forward to most at the Rio Olympics?
Seeing all my friends that I’ve got to know over the years at overseas competitions. I made friends with a lot of swimmers all over the world, from the US to countries like Tanzania and Jamaica etc, and I don’t get to see them that often. It will be really fun to catch up at the Olympics and share this once-in-a-lifetime experience together.
How will you feel when you’re standing at the edge of the Olympic pool?
I will definitely feel a lot of excitement because I have never raced in front of such a big crowd before. I will need to try and stay clam and be cool so I can perform in my race.
What is your advice to anyone dreaming of taking part in the Olympics?
Don’t ever give up on your dream. It might take a lot of hard work and time to make it come true, but dreams do come true. And here’s one of my favorite quotes that I would like to share with any athletes – “There are so many people out there who will tell you that you can’t. What you’ve got to do is turn around and say ‘watch me’.” – unknown
When you think of a swimmer’s body, you think of someone who is tall, with big feet and a long arm span etc. I am none of that. Being 5ft 3″ with US 5.5 shoe size, people often told me I didn’t have the right build to become a good swimmer. Yet I chose to ignore it, and put in the hard work so I could prove them wrong. Believe in yourself and the work that you put in.
What’s your spirit animal?
This will sound funny, but it’s an ant. Ants are small yet powerful, they can lift objects that weigh twice their body weight. They are hard workers and often use teamwork. They survive in harsh living conditions and always find their way around town. Small but mighty ants!
Good luck little ant – we’re rooting for you!
Catch Claudia in action in the women’s 100m backstroke on August 7 and the 200m backstroke on August 11 at the Rio Olympics.