Chan's 31 years of dedicated service

Head coach to retire at end of month after helping Hong Kong squad reach new heights

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 4:44am

Chan Yiu-hoi could write a book about commitment. It's a word he has used often during his 31 years as a swimming coach at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, the last 18 as head coach.

Chan, who steps down at the end of the month after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 60, has seen Hong Kong swimmers go from no-hopers to title contenders at regional meetings and believes that, with even more commitment, those representing the city can make a name for themselves on the world stage.

But he also issues a warning: Training at the highest level is not only tough but also boring. "In Hong Kong, a top swimmer has to wake up at 5am and repeat the same strokes in the pool for two hours before going to school or work. There is another session in the evening and the training cycle repeats six days a week. It's repetitive and monotonous," Chan says. "But if you want to succeed at the highest level you have to be fully committed to training."

Chan has certainly committed himself to the cause - he is the longest serving coach at the Sports Institute having joined the Jubilee Sports Centre (as it was then known) in 1982 as assistant to world renowned British coach David Haller. When Haller left Hong Kong in the early 1990s, Australian Bill Sweetenham took charge until 1995, when Chan became the third head coach at the elite training complex.

"Our swimmers owe a lot to Haller and Sweetenham," he says. "Personally, I learned a great deal but even more important was what the swimmers learned.

"Both Haller and Sweetenham came from advanced swimming nations and introduced our squad to the modern world of training and competition. As a result, the swimmers grew in confidence."

Hong Kong won their first Asian Games medal in 1986 in Seoul, where Fenella Ng Gar-loc, Hung Sze-ki, Fu Mui and Lee Sau-mei captured a bronze in the women's 4x100 metres freestyle relay. Success in the individual events soon followed with Robyn Lamsam winning bronze at the 1994 Hiroshima Games in the 50 metres freestyle. But perhaps the most important moment for Hong Kong swimming came in 2009, when Hannah Wilson clinched two gold medals - the women's 100 metres freestyle and 100 metres butterfly - at the World University Games in Belgrade, the first time Hong Kong had tasted success on the international stage.

"We started from a very low base. Our swimmers were not competitive before the Jubilee Sports Centre was set up. But over the past few decades, we have worked very hard to narrow the gap with other Asian powerhouses like China, Japan and South Korea. We've still got a long way to go but we are moving in the right direction.

"Now we have a number of swimmers who can hold their own at regional level. This was unthinkable in the old days, when we went to regional and international meetings simply to participate. We didn't dare to think about winning.

"It's different now. There has been a change of attitude towards sports development in Hong Kong over these years. The government is more involved with the provision of financial support to high-performance sports, while the public has also given more recognition to athletes' achievements."

However, he still has harsh words for Hong Kong's education system. "Our schools aren't as interested in sporting achievement as they should be. They focus on academics and so do many parents. We can't blame only the schools or the parents, though. The government should play a bigger role, and not just in terms of doling out money," Chan says.

"They can make achievement in sports equal to academic results so that the parents can have a choice between the two.

"Also, they can give more recognition to athletes. I remember when we went to Melbourne for training, the centre court at Melbourne Park, which today hosts the Australian Open, has been named the Rod Laver Arena in honour of Australia's greatest tennis player. We have also produced some world-class athletes, but where is the recognition?

"In Hong Kong, our sporting facilities are only ever named after the rich people who have donated money.

"Sport at the highest level is not just about money. Most of our top athletes are now well taken care of by the government through various training grants, but recognition is also crucial and sometimes even more important to make an athlete willing to sacrifice everything.

"Success in sports can bring solidarity, enhance social cohesion and improve citizens' health. And all these are government responsibilities.

"Many of us still remember the city-wide celebrations after [windsurfer] Lee Lai-shan won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. Even when our soccer team won gold at the 2009 East Asian Games, it created a feel-good factor throughout the community."

When Chan leaves the Sports Institute at the end of the month, he will be replaced by German Martin Grabowski. "I'm sure he'll take our swimmers to the next level. But it's up to them to prove their commitment."