China’s first Olympic equestrian star Alex Hua Tian forever grateful to Hong Kong upbringing

As he targets qualification for Rio, rider took a trip down memory lane at Beas River Country Club

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 February, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 February, 2016, 9:00am

A walk around the Beas River Country Club brings a flood of memories back for Alex Hua Tian.

It was here as a young boy that Hua discovered his passion in life, as well as the competitive spirit that would drive him on to become China’s first Olympic equestrian.

“It’s all come back,” says the 26-year-old. “I left Hong Kong when I was 11 and I’ve only been back twice. I can’t tell you how much time I spent here between the ages of six and 11. I learnt to ride, swim, ride a bike. This is where it all began.”

It was on those two previous trips to Hong Kong that Hua cemented his place in Chinese sporting folklore. The first was in 2007 at an Olympic test event and then the moment of truth came in 2008 when the city hosted the equestrian events for the Beijing Games.

When Hua took to the course for the eventing at Sha Tin, he became at 18 the youngest rider to compete in the Olympics’ equestrian competition and also the first Chinese athlete to ever do so. Almost eight years later and it seems he’s still coming to grips with the scale of the achievement.

“It was very much a matter of being the right nationality at the right place at the right time, with the right funding,” he says. “It was a cocktail of many things happening at the same time that got me there so I don’t think that will happen again to an 18-year-old.

“I don’t think I really grasped the magnitude of it at all. I think when you’re 18 you don’t really think, you’re that young and naive.”

Hua has been in town this week to take in the action at the Longines Masters event at Asia World Expo as a guest of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, sharing his expertise with the next generation of Hong Kong riders and quite simply grabbing the chance to be a fan of the world’s best show jumpers.

While Hong Kong’s contingent missed out on qualifying for the Rio Games in August, Hua is a good bet to be there, as he leads his group with the March qualifying deadline looming.

“I have really improved over the past eight years and I really feel like I am more in control of my own destiny,” he says. “I have learned so much about how to look after myself, in terms of training and life. It’s been a really interesting process and something that I am very proud of.”

It would be another major achievement for China’s only representative on the international equestrian scene, and a further step forward for a sport that is rapidly growing across the nation.

“Since 2008, if you take into account the polo and the leisure sector, equestrian sports are unrecognisable here to what they were before,” says Hua.

“Really in the last eight years it has grown out of all proportion in China. The amount of money being spent on infrastructure, the horses being brought in – it’s really growing very, very quickly.”

Born to a Chinese father and a British mother, Hua’s early days were spent in Beijing before the move to Hong Kong and he is now based in Knutsford, England, where he runs a stable of his own. He says the role he plays championing his sport in China sits easy.

“Working with the kids here I hope to inspire them,” he says. “Just because they learnt to ride in Hong Kong and not Germany or the UK or America, I don’t think that is a limit to what they can achieve in the future. Promoting the sport in China is a real passion of mine.

“I feel a responsibility to raise the sport’s profile and to share my passion. I want to inspire the young riders here to really go out in the world and have a go at it.”

And that takes Hua back to those days racing around Beas River and the experiences that help set his life on the course it has taken. “I grew up with [Hong Kong equestrian team member] Kenneth Cheng [Man-kit] – we were in exactly the same riding lessons,” says Hua. “It was Thursday afternoon every week from six to 11. As some of the few boys at the pony club then, we took so much pride in winning the annual Easter egg hunt – every year. We took it as a matter of such pride that we just had to win.

“The social side of the sport here is really unique. You develop friendships and a real passion for it that last for a lifetime, which is certainly the case with me.

“You know there might be a day when I no longer compete. But I can’t imagine a life without horses.”