Breaking the barriers: how Hong Kong swimmer Yvette Kong beat depression to reach Olympics
Twenty-three-year-old quit the sport for a time before seeking help to cope with pressure imposed by never-ending quest for academic and sporting results
After the spate of student suicides this year, the pressure on young people in the city – and the lack of awareness about mental health issues – has never been clearer.
Yvette Kong Man-yi knows all about that pressure.
Kong was seen from a young age as one of Hong Kong’s most promising swimmers, but at 23 is only now living up to her potential, qualifying for her first Olympics after a battle with depression that at one point saw her quit the sport.
She went into a spiral of panic and self-sabotage after failing to live up to expectations at the 2010 Youth Olympics and Asian Games and missing qualification for the London Olympics (by a mere 0.1 seconds).
A scholarship athlete at Berkeley University, at one point the mental anguish was so great she ran away from qualification meetings minutes before she was due to get in the pool.
Only after Teri McKeever, Berkeley’s hugely experienced swim coach, urged her to seek professional help, did Kong start to get to the root of her issues.
She is now swimming full-time as part of the University of Edinburgh’s team, thanks to a Hong Kong Sports Institute grant secured by dint of a relay medal at the last Asian Games (“I was very lucky,” she says).
Focusing on the process rather than the outcome has, ironically, produced the best results of her career, which will culminate in a trip to Rio after she achieved the A qualifying standard for the 100m breaststroke (her 1 minute 07.69 seconds saw her qualify by .16 seconds). She is also likely to compete in the 200m breaststroke, having achieved the B standard.
“It seemed like a black hole I couldn’t get out of, and I felt like I was in emotional pain. I felt numb,” says Kong in a frank conversation at the HKSI pool, where she and her teammates are preparing to try to secure Olympic qualification in the medley relay at the Malaysian Open next month.
WATCH: Persistence pays off for Yvette Kong
As she recalls her lowest point, when she quit for three months in 2013, Kong haltingly admits: “I kind of broke down and realised ‘I can’t do this’, at least swimming this way any more. I started to realise that I had a lot of ... I started kind of having flashbacks from the past ... ”
It’s still difficult to put into words. Therapists in the US and Hong Kong diagnosed her with a range of symptoms resulting from prolonged stress.
Burying the stress of needing to deliver results both academically and in the pool for years finally resulted in an “explosion”, she says.
“[I had] very emotional and negative flashbacks [of trauma] that I think I kind of erased in my mind when I was younger,” she says.
“When I thought swimming was over it came out. I had flashbacks of dark times when I was younger, how I dealt with pressure of school and swimming, how ...
“Anyway ... after having those flashbacks I knew something was really wrong with me. It’s not that I didn’t love swimming, but there was something hindering me. I realised I had trauma from swimming and around qualification meets.”
Kong pinpoints the origin in her teens. She was constantly expected to deliver, in the exam hall and the pool.
“I think [it’s] very accumulative – it probably started when I was 15 or 16,” she says. “I think I’ve always put pressure on myself in swimming – on the outcome.
“Since I was quite talented, it seemed pretty obvious to myself and other people, I think I let the expectations of people and myself burden me a lot.
“When I started swimming I was obsessed and it was my passion ... but it got to a point where [it] became a huge burden. After the ‘downfall’ [as she describes her dramatic dip in form], after 2009, I was just so pent up I just kind of exploded.”
Kong was ranked second in the world in her discipline in the rankings compiled by American colleges as they recruit scholarship talents: more pressure she found impossible to live up to. Indeed, she only qualified for the NCAAs, American university sport’s top competition, in her first year at Berkeley.
She’s hugely grateful to McKeever for urging her to seek help. Given the stigma that still exists in Hong Kong – and in sport in general to be fair – about mental health issues, it seems doubtful she would have made the move by herself.
“Unfortunately, some of Yvette’s challenges are more common than you would think,” said McKeever, who has coached at Berkeley since 1992. “Especially with the elite level student athletes I work with, [because of their] strong desire to be successful in everything they do.”
Kong admits her parents struggled to understand, surely a familiar complaint from many of the city’s students tied to the non-stop Catherine’s Wheel of exams, tutors and extracurricular activities.
“I think it’s a lot to do with the culture [in Hong Kong],” she says of the unwillingness to address the issue.
“There’s a taboo in the culture about talking about mental health. It took me quite a while to be able to look in the mirror and accept that I may be going through depression, to accept that I’m feeling fragmented and depressed.
“It took my family a while to really accept that I’m going through this issue because I think we see it as appearing weak or ‘we don’t have enough willpower’.
“I think initially they were quite taken aback. It’s not like they didn't notice it before, I wasn’t behaving like myself around qualification meets. But a lot of people aren’t very psychologically minded.
“I guess later on they kind of dug a bit deeper into that, did a bit of research on their own and slowly came to an understanding. They were very supportive on my way back to healing.
“I’d been concealing it for a few years before I just needed to acknowledge that I’m not okay. And that it’s okay to be sad.
“Now I wish that there’s more encouragement for athletes in Hong Kong, or anywhere, to be able to speak about it. Any gender even, there’s also a stereotype that men have to be stronger and it’s okay for women to be a bit more tender.”
Having faced her issues, Kong – who graduated in cognitive science from Berkeley – says she’s never felt better, both in and out of the pool.
“The breakthrough was imagining myself as the little girl who was once obsessed with swimming,” she says of her first steps toward a healthier thought process.
“I think that helped me get back in the water. It’s quite a liberating thought, also realising that I shouldn’t let others define what success means to me.
“I have this new definition of success, that if I've done my best and have no regrets I have succeeded – I’ve lived by that motto.
“Swimming became a wonderful thing again, how I would see it as a little girl. I become a much happier, wiser and more empathetic person around the pool, around friends and people, and my performances gradually went up alongside my well-being.”
And as she’s stopped being a slave to the tyranny of the stopwatch, the results have arrived. She and her coach at Edinburgh, Chris Jones, are hopeful she can make at least the semis in Brazil, maybe even a final.
“When she joined she was not in a good place,” says Jones, “swimming 1 minute 13 seconds for 100 breast. I was very impressed in how she applied her early season training and the rate of her improvement in six months, going from 1.13 to 1.07.
“If she gets a good block of training in, we can challenge for a semi-final spot.”
Whatever happens in Brazil, you feel Kong’s already had the most important victory in her career.
“Success to me is being able to do my best and present my best and authentic self and that will be the goal in the Olympics and throughout life,” she adds. “It’s been quite a big lesson for me.”