Olympic Swimmer Yvette Kong on Smashing Through Her Performance Plateau and Why Her Dreams Don't Stop at the Olympics
The 23-year-old swimmer made her dreams come true this summer when she competed in the Rio Olympics. She talks about opening up to therapy, what the Olympics mean to her, and where she’ll go from here. Photos by Kirk Kenny / studiozag.com
I started swimming when I was three. Back then, when I dived into a pool, I felt like I was diving into an alternate world, a world free of troubles. I just love being there, it’s my happy place. My brother and cousins were pretty good swimmers when they were younger. I looked up to them and wanted to be like them. A few years later, I turned out to be faster than them. When I was around 10 I started training more seriously—five to six times a week. It was tough, but it was also an escape from school work.
I remember saying to my friends when I was 6 or 7 years old that I had dreamed of being in the Olympics. I broke the Hong Kong record when I was 13. I missed the 2008 Beijing Olympics when I was 15. But it wasn’t too crushing because I was quite a rookie. I turned the frustration into motivation. The next year, when I was 16, I swept all the Hong Kong breaststroke records. I was ranked 21 in the world.
But after that I plateaued for 6 years. I had a performance drought. I was far from my personal best—I wasn’t even close. When I tried to qualify for the London Olympics, I missed it by 0.1 seconds. That was really crushing. 0.1 seconds is just a hair, or less than a hair. I’d rather have missed it by five seconds. I was so lost and confused. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t performing, even though I had put in more hard work than ever before.
I was in such emotional pain. I was dragging myself to work out, I felt like I was a stone, I felt numb. I needed to take a break to figure out what was going on. I was heartbroken. By 2013 I felt like I was done with swimming. I resolved to enjoy other things in life, to just take a chill pill. A month after I retired, I realized it went from hurting to swim, to hurting not to swim. I really wasn’t solving the problem at all, I was just running away from it. Deep down I still loved swimming, and going to the Olympics was an unfinished dream.
After realizing that, I sought professional help. I hated being vulnerable before, I felt it was a sign of weakness, and that as an elite athlete I should have been able to deal with it. But by that time I was so defeated I needed to let go of my ego and just open up to people. It was also a way of helping myself. Psychologists and therapists gave me a safe place to talk about my feelings. Through talking and having them listen, I was able to sort out a lot of my emotions and thoughts.
I realized there was so much more than performance in swimming. There were little things in life that mattered more. Looking back on my career 10 years from now, it might not be my performance that puts a smile on my face, but intangible things—like memories, relationships and life lessons. I learned to enjoy the process: Things along the way, rather than the end goal. I realized that the journey was the reward. The result was just a by-product of the process and of living well in the present.
"While going to the Olympics was great, it won’t be my final destination."
My motto now is “it’s wonderful waking up in the morning knowing that you’ve given your best.” When I’m at my best, I have the ability to accept things that I cannot do, and embrace the things that I can. I would prefer to define success as something internal—something I can have total control of. If success is measured by effort, then everyone has the ability to achieve it.
With these little adjustments, my perspective in life changed. When I was going through hard times, I looked back to when I was a 13-year-old swimming prodigy, and felt that kind of blessing was a curse. Now after 6 years of struggle, it’s kind of reversed—it’s been a blessing in disguise. It’s made me a lot more grounded, and a happier, wiser and more empathetic person.
It was so surreal [being at the Olympics]. I remember having chills when I saw the main pool, realizing it wasn’t just a location—it was a place where a lot of dreamers’ dreams came true. Some people think that getting an Olympic Gold is the ultimate achievement in sport. But after the challenges I’ve faced, I feel that while going to the Olympics was great, it won’t be my final destination.
I was pretty set on retiring before the Olympics. I thought I’d just give it a final shot and see what I could do. But now I think I want to continue. I have a feeling that I’ll want more in the pool. We can all have a lot of identities. Right now I’m still an athlete, but I’d like my identity to extend beyond that. Life can offer so much more than just a career.