Wheelchair-bound HK athletes hold high hopes for medals in popular ball game
A game of strategy and accuracy, boccia is often referred to as a sister of lawn bowls - without the white vests and trousers.
The event, introduced to the Paralympics in 1984, is designed to be played by people with cerebral palsy and other locomotive disabilities.
The objective is to toss, roll or throw leather balls by hand or foot and land as close as possible to a white leather ball known as the jack. The playing field is slightly smaller than a badminton court.
Boccia came into favour much later than other sports. The Hong Kong team won the World Cup in Brazil in 1999 and since then more resources have been devoted to the sport. It has grown more popular in the past 10 years.
Young athletes such as Leung Yuk-wing and Lau Yan-chi brought home their first gold medals from the Athens Paralympics. This year, the Hong Kong team have greater ambitions with six wheelchair-bound members heading to Beijing to participate in three categories: individual, doubles and group.
In preparation, team members have been practising for two hours three nights a week, plus full-day camp on Sundays. Many athletes travel more than an hour to get to the gymnasium at Lam Tin to practise, trying to build up their endurance through rigorous exercise.
At 21, Karen Kwok Hoi-ying is the youngest athlete on the team, and this will be her second time at the Games. She is the No1 boccia hand-player in the International Boccia Commission's world rankings.
Kwok, who has cerebral palsy, got hooked on boccia at 12, and her talent was soon identified by the Sports Association for the Physically Disabled. She won an international competition in Singapore in July.
'Boccia fits me well as it requires precise hand movements and I have to think and use my mind every step of the way,' said Kwok, a recent graduate from Chinese University.
'This game is exciting for me and challenges my mind. The triumph in Singapore is a warm-up for my second Paralympics, and it has reinforced my confidence.'
During Kwok's eight-year athletics career, her father, Kwok Hack-wing, has been mentor and coach for the team. He stresses the players' repetitive hand movements.
'He's fair and a strict coach,' she said with a smile. 'Dad has witnessed every glorious moment with me in overseas competition. I remember my first gold medal in Brazil in 2006. We were so thrilled.' The coach cited the importance of foundation skills.
'Karen developed a firm foundation as she also practises at home,' he said. 'She has a good eye and doesn't forget to use that, plus her clear thinking and physical strength. This is the key to winning.'
Leung, who has muscular dystrophy, won two gold medals in Athens.
'Leung is a natural-born boccia player, and he caught on to the different techniques like a fish to water,' said coach Kwok. 'It is more than that. He has the motivation and is keen to learn new skills.'
Leung fell in love with boccia when he first played it at school five years ago.
'This tests my eyesight, arm strength and patience,' he said. 'In an hour-long game, you have to concentrate before throwing. There is strategy involved - how to place the ball to block the opponent. Or even anticipating what might happen if the ball doesn't land the way we want it to. It's quite exhausting.'
He picks up a red leather ball and hurls it across a divide of 20 feet to land neatly next to the white jack, forming a wall of red balls.
'It looks easy, but if I miss the next ball, my opponent can start knocking my red balls out of bounds.
'This game is not just about the distance or the accuracy. It involves each athlete utilising techniques to surmount certain challenges, or ways to out-think your opponent. Competing in doubles is always great fun.'
Leung said he was looking forward to living in the Olympic Village and competing.
'The Olympic Village is very global and international. It sounds very exciting, and it is,' he said.
Hong Kong head coach Cannie Leung Yim-fun said competitions broadened the athletes' horizons.
'This is eye-opening exposure for the athletes,' she said. 'Boccia suits seriously handicapped people with cerebral palsy who have a limited choice of sports. This is really thanks to [health chief] York Chow Yat-ngok, as he is the man pushing sport for people with disabilities.'