City's fab four overcome the odds
Heat, rain, sickness and an emotional roller-coaster ride. Hong Kong's triumphant women's fours team had to go through all kinds of physical and mental demands before they bagged a gold medal at the Asian championships in Kuala Lumpur last week. It was the first time in six years that a Hong Kong team had won a gold medal at the tournament.
'What we had to go through together as a team was really something. It was only through a fantastic team spirit that we built during the tournament that we managed to do the improbable,' said team manager Queenie Lai Siu-lin, who watched debutants Jessie So Pui-ling and Joanna Nam Ching-ying plus the experienced Tammy Tham Mee-kim and Alice Lee Fong-kiu (skipper) walk away with top prize.
'It was a huge struggle from beginning to end and something our bowlers will all remember for a long time. When we won our final game against Malaysia, it was a great feeling and something we were very proud of.'
Hong Kong picked up their first gold medal at the championships since winning the men's pair and women's triples in Brunei in 2006. But what makes last week's achievement more impressive was that the team defeated a professional side in the final.
And amateur Hong Kong (all team members hold down full-time jobs) finished unbeaten in the competition, winning their round-robin matches with ease before defeating Thailand 20-13 in the semi-finals.
Hong Kong also had to pick themselves up after the women's triples team of Lee, Nam and So narrowly lost their semi-final on the last wood against a Filipino side.
'We were extremely unlucky to have lost that match because it could have gone either way. But we didn't give up and focused on the fours after that loss. We had a tremendous run right up to the final. We managed to come back from that [triples] defeat, which was the amazing thing,' said Lai.
Hong Kong also had the luck of the draw, avoiding the Malaysians until the final, where skipper Lee played a tremendous game. Hong Kong dominated the final, going eight shots ahead at one point before settling for a 16-7 victory against Maisarah Aminludin, Azlina Arshad, Zuraini Khalid and Auni Fatiah Kamis.
Before reaching the final, Hong Kong had to battle 35 degrees Celsius heat and almost daily squally showers. Several members of the Hong Kong men's team couldn't cope with the conditions and fell ill during the tournament.
'When we left Hong Kong for Kuala Lumpur, it was still cold and when we arrived it was a shock to the system as it was so hot in Kuala Lumpur. We needed to acclimatise to the conditions quickly,' said Lai.
Knowing that the greens in Kuala Lumpur were going to be fast, several training sessions were arranged in Shenzhen, where green conditions are similar to Malaysia. It paid off at the Bukit Kiara lawn bowls complex.
The five-men and five-women Hong Kong team were selected by a points system, whereby the highest-ranked bowlers are picked over a three-year performance period. But Lai said the system was somewhat flawed as the most talented bowlers might not always be picked.
She said many bowlers couldn't take time off work to compete in local competitions that make up the national rankings and therefore missed out when it came to team selections.
'Also some bowlers might make the top ranking list but don't want to represent Hong Kong because they can't take leave from work. In the end, Hong Kong might not send their best squads for overseas competition,' said Lai, who works as an insurance agent.
'It's very hard to play against top professionals when we're strictly amateurs. That's why it was an achievement to have beaten the Malaysians, who have produced world champions in the past. Our team for Kuala Lumpur was a mixture of youth and experience and we have done well,' she said.
Hong Kong's victory also made amends for their disappointing performance at the Asia Pacific championships held in Adelaide in December. Hong Kong failed to win a single medal, but at the Asian championships, the bowlers came away with a gold and five bronze medals won in the men's pairs, men's triples, men's fours, women's singles and women's pairs. Hong Kong finished fourth among 12 countries in the final medals tally.
'We won no medals at the Asia Pacific championships and that hurt our confidence. It was amazing that we managed to turn it around,' Lai said.
Hong Kong's youngest team member, 23-year-old Lee Ka-ho, proved his credentials, reaching the semi-finals of the singles competition. He also won two bronze medals, one in the men's triples and the other in the men's fours.
Nam was delighted to have won a gold medal in the women's fours despite Hong Kong's amateur status. 'The Malaysians and even the Indians are professionals so it was difficult to compete against them,' said Nam, who operates her own trading business. 'We don't get much government support and it's hard to get time off work to train for major competitions. It was also the first time I represented Hong Kong so to come away with a gold medal was great,' she said.
'Everything seemed to go our way in the women's fours. We had a good draw right up to the final and had a good run. Our confidence picked up and we played a smashing game against the Malaysians in the final.
'It will certainly boost our confidence ahead of November's world championships in Adelaide. That will be the true test for us. For the moment, we can savour our victory.'
We don't get much government support and it's hard to get time off work to train Gold medallist joanna nam
Hong Kong's position out of 12 countries in the medals standings at the Asian championships in Kuala Lumpur