Cheng hopes to ride wave of success in Singapore

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am

Mother really does know best. In 2003, when Hong Kong was reeling from the devastating consequences of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, Michael Cheng Chun-leung's mother made a decision that would change her son's life forever.

'I was a swimmer in those days,' Cheng, now 16, said. 'But all of a sudden my training sessions were suspended because of Sars. There was a danger that I could contract the terrible virus in the swimming pool. My mother insisted, however, that I should still be involved in sports and enrolled me in a windsurfing course.'

That proved to be a real eye-opener for the young Cheng, who tomorrow begins his quest to win a medal for Hong Kong at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

After his recent third-place finish at the Techno Junior Windsurfing World Championships in France, Cheng is considered a realistic medal hopeful at the inaugural Youth Games, whose spectacular opening ceremony last night was attended by Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee.

'In 2003, many parents felt it was unsafe for their children to gather in large groups or participate in activities that might lead to the spread of Sars,' Cheng's mother, Jackie Wong Mei-ha, said. 'But I love windsurfing very much and it was an opportunity for Michael to take up the sport. There was little chance of catching Sars out on the open sea.

'I am also a windsurfer, so taking Michael to his training sessions was a lot of fun. I did worry that he might find the training too tough but he took to the sport almost immediately.'

However, she never imagined that Cheng would rise to the levels he has today. Cheng is one of only 14 Hong Kong athletes competing in Singapore, where 3,600 participants, aged between 14 and 18, will vie for 184 gold medals in 26 sports over 12 days.

Despite showing great promise, Cheng had not thought he would make it to the Youth Olympics. 'I was assigned to the RS:X class [Olympic board] when I joined the Hong Kong team. However, having evaluated the performance of all the junior windsurfers, the coach decided to move me to the Techno class and asked me to compete at the Techno world junior championships in the United Kingdom,' he said. 'I wasn't used to the board and felt a great deal of pressure.'

He finished a disappointing 22nd in the UK but learnt from his mistakes and within a year was making waves at international and regional regattas. He is now the top-ranked boardsailor in the under-17 Techno class in Asia and his world ranking is three.

Cheng is confident he will perform well at the Youth Olympics. 'The winds will be light in Singapore and that will suit me just fine. I'm not going to predict winning a medal but I'm confident I will put on a good performance for Hong Kong,' he said.

Cheng stressed the importance of staying calm in competition. 'I chose the wrong route three times in the opening match at the world junior championships in France because I was very nervous. I don't want to repeat the mistake in Singapore,' he said.

Since 2005, Cheng has won 100 medals, trophies and awards in various domestic and overseas competitions, including a gold medal at this year's Techno Asian championships in April, a result which earned him one of the two berths (Crystal Man Ka-kei will represent Hong Kong in the girls' division) at the Youth Olympics.

However, the humble youngster said he still had a long way to go before he could claim any real success in the sport.

'There are many champions in the [senior] Hong Kong team and my achievements are nothing to boast about compared to theirs,' Cheng said. 'The senior members always give me tips before I go for overseas competitions and I hope I can be as successful as them in future. My next target is to win a gold medal at the under-19 world championships in the RS:X class and I still have a couple of years to make that dream come true.'

In recognition of his achievements, Cheng's mother usually rewards him when he wins a major competition. 'I got an iPad this time for the bronze medal at the World Juniors,' Cheng said shyly.