Best yet: Hong Kong has sent its strongest swimming team ever to Rio. Can they make the step up?

Knocking the stars from the US, Australia and China from the podium will realistically prove a stroke too far, but a semi-final spot or two might be in our grasp

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 2:40pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 11:17pm

Hong Kong’s strongest swimming team ever dives into competitive action on Sunday (Monday night Hong Kong time), living their Olympic dream and wondering if it could get even better.

Knocking the stars from the United States, Australia and China from the podium will realistically prove a stroke or several too far, but there are strong hopes that a semi-final spot or two might be in our grasp.

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There are six women and one man in the team. Teen star Siobhan Haughey, the brightest hope, became Hong Kong’s first ever swimmer to record an Olympic ‘A cut’ – the qualification time that guarantees a spot – almost exactly a year ago, and that seemed to inspire several others to follow her example.

Most have trained with some of the world’s best universities in the US.

In her freshman year, Haughey was named swimmer of the championships as she helped drive University of Michigan, Michael Phelps’ alma mater, to their first win for years in the prestigious Big 10 championships. She is joined by another ‘Wolverine’, Claudia Lau Yin-yan, who beat the 200m backstroke A cut by a second on the very last day of qualification eligibility.

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Yvette Kong Man-yi, Camille Cheng Lily Mei and Stephanie Au Hoi-shun, who carried the flag for HK at her third Olympics, are all University of California at Berkeley alumni, where the great Missy Franklin honed her stroke.

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Also at her third Games is Sze Hang-yu, the odd one out of the team as she did her studies in Beijing. Au and Sze join Cheng and Kong for the relays. Geoffrey Cheah, a Stanford man, qualified via a wild card.

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“It’s still a bit surreal,” said 18-year-old Haughey, who has an Irish father and Hong Kong mother. “I still can’t believe I’m actually at the Olympics, especially arriving at the village and seeing all the flags everywhere, seeing all these amazing athletes, it’s just like a dream come true.”

Kong echoed the sentiment: “It’s surreal to be able to touch my dream, I’m here now and I feel a bit euphoric if that’s the right word,” said the 23-year-old.

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Lau, also 23, gets HK underway in the heats for the 100m back on Sunday, followed by Kong in the 100m breast. Cheng and Haughey are in action on Monday in the 200m free.

While Australia’s swimmers declared themselves unhappy with ‘cloudy’ water in the pool, HK had no complaints.

“I had a training session at the competition pool, it went well, I trained well, and I’m happy with what I did in the pool and with everything else,” said Kong. “It’s very professionally set-up and I don’t have many concerns going into the meet.”

Lau added: “Coming from Michigan, the time difference isn’t bad, just an hour, and we’re getting used to the pool quickly and nicely – I’m trying to contain my excitement because you shouldn’t get too excited.

“It’s all okay [at the pool] and for backstroke for me I’m really glad that it has a roof so I can gauge where I’m going – so far, so good.”

Realistically, reaching the semis would be a major success for any of the team, though Mike Bottom, Haughey’s mentor at Michigan and the assistant coach for the US men here, told me in March: “She has a shot to be in the final, and if you have that, on any given day, you can get on the podium.”

But the women are wisely ‘focusing on the process and not the result’ to use sport’s latest buzzphrase.

For Cheng, 23, “if I can just swim at night [semis], that would be awesome.” Kong quit for a time after suffering crippling depression related to the chase for medals, and rightly sees just being here as a victory: “I feel very positive, and I know whatever I do on my race day I’ll be content with my efforts,” she said.

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Haughey, whose parents and sister are flying in to support her, added: “I just want to enjoy the Olympics and absorb the whole experience, try my best, have fun and we’ll see what happens.”