California calling

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am

Jeffrey Lum Ching-tat knows he has a talent for swimming. Now he wants to take it to the next level and that means selling himself to a university in the United States.

The 17-year-old, who recently smashed three Hong Kong records - the 50m and 100m freestyle and 4x100m freestyle relay, plans to follow in the footsteps of fellow Hong Kong team members Sherry Tsai Hiu-wai and Hannah Wilson and move to Berkeley, California, next summer after finishing secondary school.

'My plan is to find a community college in Berkeley to see if I can catch the eye of the University of California in Berkeley because of my sporting performance,' Lum said. 'I hope to secure a sport scholarship from the university so I can train with some of the world's best swimmers, to help improve my standard.

'I have already spoken to a number of people regarding my plans and the responses are quite positive. My family also supports me.'

Lum said his decision was not only due to the recent success of Wilson at the World University Games in Belgrade, where she won two gold medals, but his strong desire to compete with the world's best.

'If you have found your talent in sport, you don't want to miss it,' the form five student at Diocesan Boys' School said. 'Although there is no guarantee of success by training in the US, you certainly have a greater exposure to top-class swimming, which helps you take it to another level.

'Having said that, I don't want people saying you can only become a top-class swimmer by training in the United States or that there are no facilities in Hong Kong to produce top swimmers. All I want to do is to find a new environment and see if I can fully make use of the opportunity to improve my skills.'

Lum has been a product of the development programme at the Sports Institute in Fo Tan, and was accordingly selected as a member of the Hong Kong junior squad.

A 200-metre freestyle specialist, he failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and has since changed to shorter distance events.

Lum, who did improve his time by two seconds prior to the Beijing Games but was still two seconds short of the qualifying mark, said: 'Missing the Olympics was a big disappointment.

'I had a long discussion with my coaches last year and they agreed my style would fit better in the sprinting events, and therefore I have focused on the 50m and 100m freestyles, and it has been working very well.'

The change paid off at the inaugural Asian Youth Games in Singapore in July, when Hong Kong clinched three gold medals in swimming - all involving Lum. He won the 50m and 100m events, both in Hong Kong records, and was a member of the gold-medal relay team in the 4x100m freestyle relay.

At August's Asian Age Group Championships in Japan, the quartet bettered their mark by almost two seconds, and two weeks ago Lum broke his mark in the 50m freestyle by two-hundredths of a second at the International Open Championships at Kowloon Park Swimming Pool.

'For a long time male swimmers in Hong Kong have been outclassed by our female counterparts, but it is changing gradually,' Lum said, with a smile creeping across his face. 'We have proved ourselves at several international meets, and I hope the men's team can gain a reputation, too.'

At the Beijing Olympics, Hong Kong were represented by three female swimmers - Tsai, Wilson and Stephanie Au Hoi-shun.

In 2006, the women's relay team snatched the only swimming medal at the Asian Games in Doha, when they came third in the 4x100m freestyle. None of the men made it to a final in Doha. At the 2004 Olympics, five female swimmers qualified, while only one man - breaststroker Tam Chi-kin - made it to Athens.

The last male swimmer to win a medal at a multi-sport games was Mark Kwok Kin-ming, who came third in the 400m freestyle at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games.

'We certainly have a good chance of improving that record at the forthcoming East Asian Games,' Lum said. 'The relay team stand a good chance of making the podium, while I will also work hard in the two sprint events.'

To prepare for that and next month's National Games in Jinan, Shandong province, Lum has suspended his studies and will not go back to school until the completion of the two big Games.

'I have obtained a special approval from my school to allow me to focus on training only during this important fine-tuning period,' he said. 'To do well in these two major Games is just the beginning, and my ultimate goal will be making the semi-finals in the Olympic Games.

'I hope my sporting dream can be fulfilled with my decision to be based in Berkeley next year.'

Tsai, who was the swimming team captain when studying at the University of Berkeley, said Lum had every chance of getting into the university team. 'I have no doubts about his swimming performance, but he also has to achieve a minimum standard in his studies, or he will not be admitted to the university,' said 26-year-old Tsai, who will retire from the international arena after the East Asian Games in December.

'It is too early to predict whether he will be able achieve his goal after joining the university team. But he will certainly become more mature by training in an overseas team, and gain more international exposure. At the end of the day it will depend on how hard he works to reach his goal.'