'Iron lady' Hunt ends 30 years of total dedication

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


Ruth Hunt's imminent departure as Hong Kong's national triathlon coach will bring to an end almost 30 years of total dedication to one of the world's most challenging endurance sports.

A former world top-10 Ironman athlete, Hunt has been a familiar figure at triathlon events since she first took up the sport soon after arriving in Hong Kong in 1982.

She took on the post of national coach 16 years ago and has guided select groups of elite athletes to achieve impressive results and international recognition. Her most memorable achievement was to steer Daniel Lee Chi-wo to a silver medal at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.

'We were expecting Daniel to win a medal because he had trained and raced exceptionally well in the build-up,' Hunt, 55, said. 'The silver medal was incredible, but then we found out nine months later that the gold medal winner - Dmitriy Gaag, of Kazakhstan - had been banned for testing positive for a banned substance, so then we started to think about what might have been.'

Professional sport is often littered with disappointments, so Hunt simply got Lee to focus his training on the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and as he had already competed in the Athens 2004 Games he had the necessary confidence to go forward and do what was necessary to qualify for his second Olympic trip.

Hunt was born in the Lake District in Britain but grew up in Richmond in Surrey. After graduating from Warwick University she worked for four years as a PE teacher in Bristol, and then accepted a position at St George's School in Kowloon Tong.

'To be honest I had no idea where Hong Kong was at that time - I knew it was near China, but I probably couldn't have found it on a map. However, the minute I got here I felt entirely comfortable with it.

'St George's was a military school and had the most expensive sports pitches in the world, considering what they were worth when they were sold for construction after 1997. The school was right under the flight path to Kai Tak Airport and so when we did sprints or other trackwork we would have to wait until the planes had passed over as we couldn't hear the starter's gun for the noise.

'I played netball to a high level in the UK so I joined a club when I arrived in Hong Kong,' she said. 'After a year or so I was asked to captain Hong Kong in the World Netball Championships.'

It was at this time the Hong Kong Triathlon Association was formed with Hunt being one of the original committee members. Together with Ian Polson she helped to organise some of the first local races, including a children's aquathon.

'We didn't have any money back then so the office was in a warehouse in Fo Tan,' she said. 'We would get only about 100 entries in a race, but the numbers grew as the more organised we became.'

In 1983, Hunt became inspired after watching the Hawaii Ironman triathlon on television and so began a journey that has taken her all over the world to compete in and coach athletes at top-level international events.

'I spent the next summer training in Hawaii and getting to know the course. I then went back in October to compete in my first Ironman event,' she said. 'I had already done one marathon and I was a reasonably good swimmer as I swam regularly in the UK. I wasn't great on the bike but I decided to work on that discipline to be able to compete at a higher level.'

Hunt crossed the finish line more than 11 hours after she started the 4.2-kilometre swim, 180-kilometre bike ride and 42.2-kilometre marathon, but she was hooked, finishing 20th out of 30-odd female starters. 'I just wanted to complete it,' she said. 'I pretty much jogged the marathon.'

On the plane back to Hong Kong, Hunt happened to be sitting next to a Japanese event organiser, who invited her to compete in a series of triathlons known as the Strongman.

'It was then that I started to think there was a living to be made from triathlon, so I began competing on a regular basis,' she said. 'Paul Brettell was the director of what was then the Jubilee Sports Centre [now the Hong Kong Sports Institute] and he offered Kim Isherwood and I a HK$100,000 annual scholarship. The fact was the facility was not getting used all that much, and he wanted it to get recognised and to demonstrate that athletes were in fact using the facilities.'

In 1988, Hunt quit her teaching job and went full time as a professional triathlete, winning numerous races and topping the Asian rankings for many years, and also breaking into the Ironman top-10 world ranking, reaching a high of seven in 1989.

In April 1994 Hunt applied for and was accepted as the coaching development officer for the Hong Kong Triathlon Association. A year later she became national triathlon coach, a post she has held ever since.

'As national coach I have been spending up to six months each year travelling to training camps and competitions, and during Olympic years this has been as much as seven months away,' Hunt said.

'We're always on a four-year cycle of getting enough points to maintain our elite sport status, while the goalposts keep getting moved to make it harder and harder to achieve.

'We've had quite a lot of success in the past few years and our squad is strong, although a little weak at the top end right now, as Daniel, who got to a high of 16 in the world, has retired, and Andrew Wright continues to have injury problems. Ho King-fun and several other male juniors are showing great promise, and on the female side Edith Li Yik-lam has an awful lot of potential.

'I plan to take some time off and then do some part-time work as a personal trainer, and I'd also like to organise sporting tours to interesting places such as Cambodia and Laos.

'For now Hong Kong will remain my home and I've bought a flat in Sai Ying Pun. However, it will be very hard to leave the place I've called home for so many years.'