I was a Hong Kong kid: Melanie Wilson’s journey from Island School to Great Britain’s Olympic rowing team
British rower says she never thought about sport as a serious pursuit during her time in Hong Kong
Melanie Wilson admits to feeling slightly awkward during media days for the Great Britain Olympic rowing team.
As part of the British women’s eight squad competing in Rio next month, Wilson and her teammates would often make themselves available for regional media outlets, who focus on the personalities from their respective counties or cities in Britain.
Wilson, though, would feel left out because she didn’t really have a “home town” in Britain. After all, she was brought up in Hong Kong. Although born in Southampton, there was no genuine affinity with the coastal city and journalists would most likely ignore her.
That’s when her mother, Karen, decided to contact the SCMP.
“When we have press days, we are split into where you are from. I don’t really have a place because I was from Hong Kong, even though I’m British. I was a bit embarrassed,” says the 32-year-old Wilson, who left Hong Kong at the age of 18 after completing her secondary education at Island School.
However, should Wilson and her teammates carry on their brilliant pre-Olympic form into Rio, then it won’t matter where her home town is.
A medal in the women’s eight at the Olympics would catapult her into national stardom, especially if they are able to overcome the dominant Americans who have won 10 Olympic and world championship titles since 2006.
But whatever her result, preparing for Rio is a world away from her life in Hong Kong where sport played an important role but was never of Olympic proportions.
Her main athletic pursuit during her school days was swimming and she and her sister, Rebecca, trained for many years at the Ladies Recreation Club with the late Captain Harry Wright, who groomed an army of top Hong Kong swimmers including New Zealand’s 1988 Olympic bronze medallist Anthony Mosse.
“It involved getting up at 5am three times a week to go training before school, and they went twice a week after school,” said Wilson’s France-based mother Karen, also an Island School alumnus, whose own mother, Kitty Burns, was a famed artist in Hong Kong in the 1970s and has pieces displayed in the Hong Kong Museum of Art as well as a mural at Queen Elizabeth Stadium.
“They did learn to swim at age six months as I felt it important they could do so in a place like Hong Kong.
“Captain Wright used to say it was good training for life and great for their young brains to swim. I have to say they weren’t that happy having to do this.”
Wilson also played water polo in Hong Kong but only flirted with rowing. As with most Hong Kong schoolgirls, the Olympics and Great Britain were farthest from her mind.
“I was good at sport in school but not outstanding,” says Melanie Wilson, who studied Biochemistry in Nottingham University straight after leaving Hong Kong and has recently qualified as a medical doctor.
“I was a Hong Kong kid and wasn’t feeling very British in those days. I never thought I would go into sport seriously.
“There was a time in sixth form when we had the option to try rowing so I went down to Middle Island and rowed a little bit but only for a couple of months or so,” said Wilson, who attended Peak School in Hong Kong for her primary education.
The Rio Games will be Wilson’s second Olympics having represented Britain in 2012 in London as part of the women’s quadruple sculls team who finished sixth at Eton Dorney Lake.
After earning her degree in Biochemistry, Wilson took a year off travelling and also worked in a research lab in Kenya before returning to Britain to pursue her Masters at University College London. It was there that the rowing bug started to truly catch on.
“I started quite gradually and was fortunate to have really great coaches,” said Wilson, who took up the sport at the relatively late age of 23. “They saw I had some talent in the sport. I did quite a bit on the rowing machine and was pulling quite good scores and they really pushed me to take it a bit more seriously.
“It was then that I guess I started to really fall in love with the sport.”
Despite her early promise, there were no grand visions of Olympic glory just yet. It was still a long way from rowing machines to the British national team. But not that far, as Wilson was soon to find out.
In 2008, her coaches told her about national trials in the north of England and encouraged her to take part.
“We are lucky in this country because the trialling system is really open so if you want to turn up and trial you can and you don’t have to be of a great standard,” she said.
“The race was over 5 kilometres, so I went up there and saw the other girls. I thought they would be unbeatable until I was racing next to them. I saw that there was potential for me so I suppose it was then that I really thought I could get into the national team.”
A burning desire to succeed had been ignited in her heart and having made the commitment to pursue rowing seriously, Wilson knew that it would involve hard work and sacrifice to achieve her ambition of wearing British colours at major events.
She had just finished her Masters and would need to juggle training with work and medical studies at Imperial College in London. Perhaps her disliked 5am mornings with Harry Wright back in Hong Kong were a blessing in disguise and steeled her for such an ordeal.
She was about to endure another stint of hard training and studying, though this time the stakes were much higher.
“To be honest, that was one of the hardest times,” said Wilson. “I was trying to support myself financially and at the same time train to a level that would put you in competition with girls that are being funded. That was really, really tough and was so consuming.
“I had to train in the morning, work all day and then train again. But at that point I had made up my mind that I really wanted it.
“I learned a lot about myself as an athlete because there was a lot of independently motivated training involved. When you’re with a team you turn up and are told what you should be doing.
“But I spent three years training on my own from 5.30am. It really made me appreciate the support set-up.”
Wilson studied medicine for two years before taking a two-year break from school to focus on the London Olympics. She returned to her studies after the Games and is now a qualified doctor. She is set to start work in her new profession in December.
“I really love medicine and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “I’ve seen athletes finish sport in their mid-30s with no firm career to go to and they’ve got amazing skills and talented and are employable but at the same time must start at the bottom in something brand new.”
Great Britain will start out as one of the favourites to dethrone the Americans in Rio, having narrowly lost to them at a recent World Cup meeting in Lucerne.
Wilson may be struggling to find a home town in UK, but Olympic medal or not, Hong Kong will happily claim her.