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Humans of Hong Kong: Swimming against the tide with Camille Cheng

By Catharina Cheung 24 July 2020

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. We spent a breezy afternoon with Hong Kong’s very own Olympian swimmer, Camille Cheng, at Deep Water Bay, learning about the selection process for the Olympic Games, representing the city internationally as a third-culture kid, and her daily training schedule.

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“I’ve always loved swimming. I think that’s why I still do what I do now; it’s just because I enjoy the feeling of being in the water. My fondest memories of growing up in Hong Kong were just by the pool, and being by the water. I was born in Hong Kong and lived here until I was nine. I was at the French International School when I was here, and then I moved to Beijing for my dad’s work.

“That’s where I started swimming. I tried different sports; I did some track and field, I did basketball—because I’m quite tall in Asia and could use that to my advantage! I was actually in PE class, and the PE teacher, who was a Greek Olympian, saw me swim and was like, ‘Oh, you need to try out for the swimming team.’ That’s how I got into swimming, and as I got better at it in high school, I focused more on swimming [than other sports] and continued on.”

“One thing led to another after high school. I went to university in the US and improved a lot during my collegiate years, and had a renewed passion for the sport. So once I graduated in 2015, I turned professional. I’ve been to world university games, two Asian Games, world championships, and college-level national championships. It’s been five years now. At the time, I thought I could have a shot at the Olympics, so why not just train an extra year?

“I never told anyone until maybe 2012 that maybe I could go. I felt too shy to tell people that was the goal, because what if I didn’t make it? But once I did, I found that everybody was really supportive and holding me accountable to what I said I wanted to do. There’s a lot of sacrifices in swimming, but my family understand that it’s always been a big priority for me, and always support my goals. In my day-to-day, my teammates and coaches are super important, because they are there to motivate you when you can’t motivate yourself, to push and challenge you, but also to encourage and cheer you on.”

“Once I started representing Hong Kong and being a swimmer for the team, I felt there was some questioning as to was I really from Hong Kong? It was quite hard at the time because when I first represented Hong Kong, I was still studying in the US. I left Hong Kong when I was nine years old, so I don’t really remember much. A big reason why I moved back was to reconnect with what it means to be from Hong Kong, what it means to represent this place, and defining what that means for me.

“Every day is a little bit different for me, but usually training practices are in the morning, from 7 am to 9 or 10 am. I wake up at 5.45 am to prepare, then warm up and practice, and have breakfast. I will either train or lift afterwards, and usually will have some recovery components. Some days, we have doubles, so we’ll train again for another two hours. If we have blocks of the afternoon off, I like to be outdoors and still active, so either at the beach or hiking. Lately, I have been having more time to cook and bake—I do have a really big sweet tooth. During the lockdown, we tried a different dessert every night. I think my chocolate molten lava cake is pretty good with a scoop of ice cream!”

“I think in Hong Kong, professional sports are quite hard because there’s a lot more pressure around performance. It’s very time-based and ranking-based because I understand it’s tied to certain opportunities for schools and college. If I had been pushed too hard when I was young, I don’t know if I would’ve enjoyed it as much. I was also shy about telling people that I was an Olympian. I sometimes felt it was a burden because there was an expectation that I always had to perform at my best. I’m sure some of it was me overthinking but it was tiring, though now I’ve become a lot more confident and can embrace being an Olympian and what that means.”

“Mental training is just as important as physical training, and since the last Olympics, a lot of my training has been focused on the mental side of things. My background is in psychology, so it kind of bridges my studies and my experiences as an athlete. It’s very exciting in the beginning, especially when you’re young, every time you race or get a best time. Then you reach a level where you plateau and you don’t improve for a while. You don’t understand it, because you’re training well, you’re doing things right, eating well, recovering well, sleeping well. I personally haven’t really gotten a best time in like, five years, which is quite a lot, and if I’m not improving my time, why am I still going?”

“But I’m also finding ways in which I’m improving that are not just outcome-based or time-based. I feel like I’ve gotten more athletic, I’m learning a lot about mindfulness and meditation and yoga, and I’m trying different things. There’s also trust and patience, and that’s very hard to remind myself of in my day-to-day, but bigger picture-wise, it’s rewarding through the ups and downs of my swimming journey.

“I never thought that I would be doing this professionally or still be swimming. But the good thing is I feel like there’s always something I can learn from swimming—that’s why I’m still in the sport.”

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.