Why one of the world’s top swim coaches believes Hong Kong teen Siobhan Haughey can star at the Olympics
University of Michigan’s Mike Bottom has coached at the last five Olympics – and he says the Hongkonger is a unique talent
He’s coached at the last five Olympics. In the 1996-2004 Olympiads, nine of the 18 medals awarded in the 50- and 100-metre freestyle events were won by his swimmers. He coached the top two finishers in the 50m free at both the 2000 and 2004 Games.
So when Mike Bottom, one of the world’s most respected swimming coaches, says 18-year-old Hong Kong prospect Siobhan Haughey has a genuine chance of making the podium at the Rio Olympics, it’s an opinion that carries weight.
Haughey is in her freshman year at the University of Michigan and starred last month as Bottom’s women’s team won the prestigious Big Ten championships for the first time since 2004 (Bottom took charge in 2012, having led the men’s team to repeated success).
Haughey broke three individual school records and two in relays as she was named swimmer of the championships.
She has been seen as a rare Hong Kong athlete of genuine world-class potential since she started breaking national records as a 13-year-old and became the city’s first swimmer ever to achieve the Olympics ‘A’ qualifying standard when she swam the 200-metre individual medley in 2 minutes 13.07 seconds at the World Championships in 2015 – booking her place in Rio.
Bottom, who also coached UMich’s men’s team to Big Ten victory, has been hugely impressed with Haughey and says she is a genuine medal chance – perhaps an outside chance, but still a chance – in Brazil.
“Simply that she has a shot,” he says when asked what he will be telling Haughey ahead of the Games.
“She has a shot to be in the final, and if you have that, on any given day, you can get on the podium.
“As long as she continues to take it one day at a time and make improvements in technique and training, there’s no limit for her.”
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Bottom says Haughey “has a chance to make the semis. If she does that, she has a chance to make the final. And if she does that, she has a chance to be on the podium.
“Is it a sure thing? No. Absolutely not. Is it even a safe bet? Maybe not.
“But she’ll have the opportunity to swim against the best in the world and see where she stacks up.”
Haughey has been labelled a “potential star of the next era of Michigan swimming” by local media after her display ended the women’s 12-year Big Ten drought.
Next up is the NCAA championships in Georgia, Atlanta from March 13-19, when Haughey and her teammates will test themselves against all the best college athletes from around the country.
Haughey will be up against national team members from the US and other countries, as well as hopefuls aiming to impress ahead of the US Olympic trials in July.
She’ll face both an Olympics bronze medallist (Lia Neal, 4x100 metre freestyle relay, London 2012) and a world championships gold medallist (Leah Smith, 4x200m freestyle relay, 2015).
It’s another big step up, ahead of an even greater one in South America, but so far Haughey has taken them all in her stride, despite some pangs of homesickness in her first few weeks in the States.
“When Siobhan first got to Michigan, we knew she didn’t come from an extensive-training background,” Bottom adds.
“We put her in a higher-level training programme. In the midst of that, we began to realise that she could make incredible changes to her stroke while training, which is very unique for people in the programme, especially for those, like Siobhan, who come from a lower-metreage programme.
“She makes great changes and trains at a high level at the same time.”
Bottom, who was in the 1980 US Olympic team that boycotted the Moscow Games, says Haughey has been a joy to work with and – remarkably, given the number of elite swimmers he’s coached – says she has something “unique”.
“She is one of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” says the 59-year-old, who has degrees in psychology and counselling.
“She’s always got a smile on her face. When you’re directing her in stroke instruction or training, she’s very receptive.
“[Technique-wise] she has the ability to start out fast and get faster as the race goes on, which is crazy when you think about it. That’s not normal.
“Again, it’s because of her stroke technique. It’s incredibly unique. She’s come in fresh and she’s ready to keep moving forward.
WATCH: Siobhan Haughey on her Olympics dream
“She can continue to get better with her technique. There’s a lot of upside there. Training-wise, we’ll continue to move her forward aerobically [ie cardiovascular fitness].
“Anaerobically, she’s about as good as somebody could be. But with the aerobic component, especially on long course metres, it could really help her.”
After the NCAAs, Haughey, is set to switch focus to long-course metres and work on those facets of her fitness and technique with Rio in mind. She’ll also have to find time to hit the books of course.
“For her, the importance is to understand that there are so many people behind her and with her in whatever she’s pursuing, whether it’s academic pursuits or Olympic pursuits,” adds Bottom.
“She doesn’t do it alone. Michigan stands with her as she moves forward.
“Michigan has so much to offer, so many resources, whether it’s through nutrition, strength and conditioning, certainly academics, even video.
“We have so many resources available to us that allows our student-athletes the opportunity to get better.
“As they use those, that opens up the door for success, not only in the Olympics, but with their careers and how they want to change the world.”