Spoilt for choice
Aggie Poon Pak-yan is torn between two loves - athletics and rugby - but has decided to spurn the latter in pursuit of chasing the Olympic dream.
A fleet-footed rugby winger, Poon sat nursing a sore ankle last weekend in Kota Kinabalu, while watching her Hong Kong teammates take part in an Asia-Pacific Women's Sevens tournament. Back in Hong Kong, her athletics coach, Paul Wright, was a nervous wreck wondering how bad her injury was.
'I think Paul is angry. He said, 'Don't get injured' and here I am injured. I sprained my ankle in the first game when a big Samoan defender fell on it. The physio said for it to fully heal it will take at least six months,' Poon said.
A spirited Poon got back on her feet for Hong Kong's last game of the tournament, the play-off for third place, coming up against Samoa once again. Hong Kong lost. But Poon is happy that she made some progress and has hopes of now playing one last rugby tournament - this weekend's Asian Women's Sevens championships in Pune, India - before hanging up her boots.
Wright will undoubtedly heave a huge sigh of relief because Poon has targeted qualifying for the London Olympics in one of three events - the 100 metres, the 100-metres hurdles or the heptathlon.
'Aggie has an incredible potential to become one of the greatest track and field athletes Hong Kong has ever seen,' says Wright, head athletics coach at the Hong Kong Sports Institute.
With such a glowing commendation, no wonder that Wright's brow is furrowed like a wheat field whenever he hears that she is on a rugby trip.
'Rugby is my first love,' says the 21-year-old Poon. 'I first played it when I was six, enjoying mini-rugby. I learned to love this game at that time and I still have this feeling.'
Like most naturally talented athletes, Poon soon discovered that she was good at other things, like running fast. When she was 12, Poon represented Hong Kong at 100 metres in junior events. Born with a highly competitive streak, she found out the hard way that being good was a far cry from being the best. 'At 12 my athletics results were very good but then other, younger athletes came along. And they were good. I was depressed and dropped out of athletics for three years and went back to rugby,' she said.
She didn't turn her back on athletics for long, and was soon back, determined to do as well, if not better, than her opposition. Two years ago came a turning point in her career when a rugby injury left her with torn ligaments in her knee and she needed surgery.
'I thought everything was over for me. I was to take part in an inter-school athletics meet and I couldn't go for it. I had also qualified at that time for the East Asian Games at the 100-metres hurdles and was also picked to play for the Hong Kong women's team in the rugby sevens competition. Because of my injury, I lost the opportunity in both sports,' Poon said.
It dawned on her then that she would have to sacrifice one sport if she wished to get ahead in the other. During the Asian Games in Guangzhou last year, Poon chose rugby over athletics and was part of the team who went agonisingly close to winning a bronze medal. But the scales fell heavily in favour of athletics this time, especially after she realised that she had a realistic chance of making it to next year's London Olympics. And to increase her chances, Poon is looking at three events.
'She is one of the strongest athletes Hong Kong has had in quite some time,' says Wright, who has been working with Poon for just over six months.
And progress has been rapid, with Poon setting personal bests of 13.92 seconds in the 100m hurdles and 11.90 in the 100m sprint, both marks leading the 2011 Hong Kong rankings.
'This year we decided to focus on hurdles because it is so technical and she needed to fix some flaws in technique. She represented Hong Kong in this event at the World University Games in Shenzhen and at the world championships in Taegu, South Korea,' Wright said.
But her core event wasn't ignored and Poon was part of Hong Kong's record-breaking 4x100m relay team in Shenzhen, along with Chan Ho-yee, Leung Hau-sze and Fong Yee-pui.
While her individual times are good this year, Poon is still a long way off the Olympic qualifying mark. 'Qualifying for athletics is among the toughest sports standards out there,' Wright said. 'In order to qualify directly to the Olympic Games, Aggie would have to get down to 13.15 seconds in the 100m hurdles or 11.38 in the 100m dash. She is still a young athlete and with a hard winter's training these times are definitely within her ability.
'Whether we have enough time to get her there by the Olympic Games is still uncertain, but she is in with a shot.'
Wright is also looking at the heptathlon as another option for Poon, spreading her chances around in the hope that she could even qualify under the 'right-of-entry' category given by the International Olympic Committee to countries that do not have an athlete meeting the Olympic qualifying standards.
'The heptathlon is another event that we have decided to play with. The Olympic qualifying mark is 5,950 points and Aggie scores very well in the 100m hurdles, high jump, 200m and long jump,' said Wright. 'She is a very strong athlete. The throws [shot and javelin] will pose a challenge but we have already started working on them. The 800m is pure guts and will stretch her to the limit but we anticipate her rugby background will help in getting her time down in this event,' added Wright, who has set a long-term goal for her to compete in the pentathlon at the Asian Indoor Championships early next year (60m hurdles, high jump, shot put, long jump, 800m) and the heptathlon at the 2014 Asian Games.
The right-of-entry path will pit Poon against a number of other athletes.
This selection is handled by the Hong Kong Amateur Athletic Association and usually goes to the athlete who has the highest IAAF points score or who is deemed by the association to have the best opportunity to succeed in their chosen event.
Currently, on the women's side, there are four or five athletes who have the chance of going close to the Olympic qualifying standard. Lam On-ki, a junior, has run 11.90 this year in the 100m and Fong Yee-pui ran 11.91 at the World University Games. Both have a chance to get close to the standard or show enough improvement for consideration under the right-of-entry category.
Leung Hau-sze also has over 1,000 IAAF points in the 100m and 200m having run 11.97 and 24.79 respectively this year.
Two endurance athletes worth watching include Chow Chi-ngan in the marathon and Siu Nga-ching in the 20km walk. Chow leads the marathon rankings but remains nine minutes off the Olympic B-Standard. Siu has lowered the Hong Kong record in the 20km walk three times this year, most recently in Canada in summer when she clocked one hour, 43 minutes and 18 seconds. She needs a time of 1:38.00 for automatic qualification and is training in the United States, where she has won two national collegiate titles in 2010 and 2011. In November, she will return to Hong Kong to train full-time as she makes a serious attempt on the Olympic qualifying mark.
The only female field event athlete with an IAAF score of 1,000 points or more is Cheung Lai-yee in the long jump. She has jumped 6.06m but will need something close to 6.65m for automatic qualifying.
Poon hopes she can gain her Olympic berth automatically and not have to fight for the right-of-entry ticket.
'I have until next June to win my own place at the Olympics,' says Poon, who is on the roster of part-time athletes at the Sports Institute because she wanted to continue to devote time to rugby. But now she has made up her mind, and will soon give up the ball game.
'I will concentrate on just one sport because of the Olympics. After India [the Asian Women's Sevens Championship] I will stop representing Hong Kong at rugby and just play for my club. Rugby will become a hobby for me,' says Poon, who is juggling her sporting commitments with doing a degree in general management at City University.
Wright said: 'She has decided to really commit to athletics in 2011 and 2012 to make the Olympic team. Her real love is still for rugby, where she enjoys the camaraderie of teammates who share similar goals and struggles.
'Athletics, on the other hand, is a much more lonely pursuit, with long, thankless hours of training on the track in all weather conditions, hours spent in the weights room, and countless other hours spent in massage, recovery, viewing tape or sitting down with the coach to review training and competition performances. But Aggie has a tremendous work ethic and loves a challenge.'
The time, in seconds, that Aggie Poon must record to qualify for the 100m hurdles at next year's Olympic Games