Team Hong Kong swimmer Stephanie Au has competed for her home city in three Olympic Games since 2008. She was also Hong Kong’s flag bearer at the 2016 Rio games.
When did you first discover your passion for swimming?
I started swimming training at nine, but I’d say my passion really developed in college because my coach introduced a whole new angle of swimming to us. We added on new exercises like dry land training, Pilates, balancing work, high-intensity workouts and runs. We also had things like mindset coaching and we’d read up on the sport. It was a very rounded way of developing. My coach always said that we were trying to build and empower young women; he didn’t want us to just focus on the swimming itself.
To what do you attribute your athletic success? Is dedication and training key, or is it more about natural talent?
I think natural talent to a degree. When you start training, it’s more about basic talent and your skill set, although you do need dedication to get yourself into the pool every day. Once you get older and you become more professional, it does become more about the passion. If you don’t get that feeling of passion when you’re competing at a higher level, it becomes much harder. Every time you try to beat that 0.01 second it’s much more difficult, so you need to give yourself that little nudge.
What keeps you motivated in training? What do you enjoy most about swimming?
I enjoy the quietness of swimming and the solitude in the pool. I also like how it gets you sweating, even though you don’t feel like you are at all! The focus on breathing and moving makes you feel alive. Also, once you’ve been in the competition pool, the competitiveness is thrilling. The swimming world contains a wide spectrum of different feelings.
What made you decide to study at the University of California, Berkeley?
Some of the older girls – my swimming peers – who I’d worked with studied there; two of them went to Berkeley. I saw both of them excelling, both in academics and in athletics, so I decided I wanted to follow in their path. Realistically, I knew I could only do all three – study, train and be able to balance the work at such a high level – in the States.
“We made history. I felt very honoured and proud to be on that team. Walking into the marshalling area with my teammates and feeling relaxed and smiling through the entire race was a precious moment.”
You studied Environmental Economics. What was that like, and is it something that still interests you?
Yes, it is. I picked that over other subjects because, unlike most student athletes who study subjects related to sports in some way, I wanted to keep my mind off swimming. I wanted to use my study as a break away from training. But another reason I picked Environmental Economics is because we don’t really get to study it in Hong Kong. In the States there is so much high-calibre research on the subject.
You were awarded an Outstanding Student accolade. How did you juggle school work and training? Was it stressful?
It was stressful, but mainly it was about prioritising and time management. Once you get that down, it’s okay. It’s easier said than done but you really need to stick to your routine. It’s relatively challenging for a secondary school-aged child, but once you can manage that, you are halfway there.
What was it like in the Olympic Villages? Did you meet and spend time with fellow athletes?
To be honest everyone is just completely focused on the competition and concentrating on their own event. Nobody wants to bother other people too much because it’s a very important game for everyone. So we do the socialising after it’s all finished.
What did it mean for you to be chosen as Hong Kong’s flag bearer?
It was a total honour, I was so happy. I never expected to be chosen, especially at the Olympic Games. I’d always wanted to be a flag bearer. It was my third time as an Olympian, and the Olympic Committee stated they’d chosen me over the others because of the extra work I’d been doing within the sporting community and the contributions I’d made towards sports development.
Of the three games you participated in, did you have a particular favourite?
All three were very different, but I would say that the 2016 Rio Olympics were by far the best. Although I tried to go in with my individual 100-metre backstroke event and failed to qualify, I also helped the relay team get into the top 16 in the world. Just the fact that we made it to the Olympics – and it was the first time for a Hong Kong swimming relay team to be there – was so special. We made history. I felt very honoured and proud to be on that team. Walking into the marshalling area with my teammates and feeling relaxed and smiling through the entire race was a precious moment.
Apart from that, are there any particular memories or defining moments that stand out?
At the World University Games, which were held two years ago, I was competing in the 50-metre backstroke and I barely made it into the finals. During the race, most of my friends – who had been competing with me since we were 12 – were in the stands cheering for me. Once I touched the wall, I heard them screaming like crazy. I didn’t win – I got silver – but they were so happy for me, and they were cheering so loudly that I knew I had made the top three. I’d qualified as seventh into the finals, but then I ended up finishing second; I’ll always remember that moment. It’s not about the time or the medals – it’s my teammates that matter.
If you could give a young athlete one piece of advice, what would it be?
I’d say you really need to find your passion and do something you love. You need to make sure you put your heart into it. You can’t just do it for a couple of months, and of course there will be challenges ahead, but if you really love it, you will find a way to make it work.
Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years’ time?
I feel like 10 years is quite a long time, because things could really change in 10 years! I know that in 10 years, I won’t be swimming professionally anymore. Hopefully I will find a sustainable new path and career. I want to give something back, perhaps by working in sporting development or training. Everything I have right now is thanks to swimming, and the sporting system that helps nurture athletes. So now I want to continue that cycle.
What do you do in your free time to relax? Is it difficult to unwind after a day of training?
I like just sitting still and listening to music. In some ways, it’s similar to swimming because once I put in my earphones it’s my own quiet world again. I can talk to myself and analyse my performance if I need to, all in my own small zone. And of course, I can get ready for the next practice.
Written by Siobhan Brewood-Wyatt