Camden Richter, 15, has glint of Olympic greatness in her eyes
Camden "Cricket" Richter may seem like your average, freckle-nosed, bright-eyed teenager, but do not be fooled. Beneath the carefree demeanour is a steely ambition to be one of the world's best triathletes.
At just 15, however, she is too young to command a spot among the talented triathletes who will assemble at the start of the Hong Kong ITU Triathlon Asia Cup next weekend, drawing some of the region's toughest competitors.
Richter is among the top three females on the Hong Kong triathlon squad, says head coach Patrick Kelly.
But until she turns 16, the Hong Kong International School student is precluded from competing in the elite, Olympic distance division. Instead, she will take the field in her age category in a junior "fun" race in which she is expected to blitz the field.
Just last Monday, for example, she took lines honours at the local Sportsoho triathlon - a 375-metre swim, 10-kilometre bike and 2.5-kilometre run - trumping the entire women's field many years her senior and finishing 30 minutes ahead of the next girl in her age category.
"It's hard to extrapolate," Kelly says, "but given what I've seen so far, she has very strong potential to become a top elite performer."
Apart from possessing the requisite characteristics of a champion-in-the-making - committed, hard-working and open to instruction - "she's got the fire", Kelly says. "She's very competitive and wants to win."
Nicknamed after a Disney character, Lucky Cricket, it is tempting to ascribe Richter's success to good fortune. At one week old, she was struck with bacterial meningitis and her parents were later told she had a negligible chance of surviving. She emerged from the scare and the auspicious name stuck. Yet a glance at the rising star's track record is evidence her reputation has been earned the hard way - through gritty dedication, hard work and a fighting spirit.
Indeed, before Richter was the fastest schoolgirl in Hong Kong, she "wasn't that sporty, just an ordinary kid", she readily admits with a modest shrug. When she tried out for the swim team, she was embarrassingly beaten for a place by her sister, two years her junior. Her competitive fires stirred, she trained relentlessly to work her way up the ranks of her swim squad, the Hong Kong Stingrays, from the lowest level to the elites.
"[My sister] pushed me to want to improve because I always wanted to beat her," explains the teenager with a chuckle. "My family is very competitive, it's good fun."
HKIS teacher Luke Wimbush noticed long-legged Richter as a natural during an afternoon training session two years ago, easily clocking a 3:30-minute pace over three kilometres. An amateur triathlete, Wimbush - now her coach - recognised her strength on the track and in the water and encouraged her to consider the triathlon. Nine months ago, she obtained a bicycle and since then has been logging gruelling rides at 5am.
"Without his interest and input, we would never have known to direct her in this way," says mother Brooke Richter, adding that endless hours in the pool under the direction of coach Richard Pointon were pivotal in preparing her for competition. Richter's aerobic capacity, developed through relentless hours in the pool, has also helped hone her talent, Kelly says.
Richter has identified next year's Asian qualifiers for world championships in Kazakhstan as her next goal, followed by the junior world championships in Edmonton, Canada.
And after that? "I really want to go to the Olympics," she replies matter-of-factly, with the level-headedness of a seasoned athlete, rather then a talented rookie. "Even just to get there, to feel like I worked hard and then to compete with some of the best triathletes. I don't think I'd be old enough for 2016 … but 2020 - it would be really cool."
The confidence to dream has been as important as the training, explains Brooke. "Her swim coach once said, 'Someone has to be an Olympian, so why the hell not you?' When you hear that at a young age and your parents and siblings agree - 'Yes, why not you, Cricket?' - it sparks the belief of what's possible."
Between now and then lie unquantifiable challenges and hard work. "Cricket is good for a 15-year-old, but still has a long way to go to be competitive on a world scale," says Wimbush. "But she has the ability and support to do so."
And the challenges are many. Predawn rides in the teeth of inclement weather. Mundane hours in the pool. Gruelling repetitions on the track. "It hasn't all been easy, I've been training a lot," says Richter modestly - as in five or six pool sessions, up to three runs and three cycles a week. Her winning edge lies in her mindset - "putting all you have into it and trying to reach your goal; most of the game is the mental part".
"She is ferocious," adds Wimbush. "She's hard as nails. Everything we do, she gives it 100 per cent. I don't have to shout and encourage her. She's got that inside her. She's tough."
Richter's immediate challenge is finding quality competition to ensure she keeps improving. "Sometimes I feel I'm in a bubble and I feel like I'm the best when I'm really not. I want to compete in more international triathlons and see the competition because that's what's going to push me to go faster and work harder," she explains.
The other challenge is time - or lack thereof. In addition to a punishing 12- to 18-hour training week, she crams in eight hours of school each day, plus needs to find time to be a teenager.
It's all worth it, she says. "When I come home and my friends and family are still in bed and I've already been training, I'm like, 'Ah yes, I did it'. I feel so accomplished."