Why Hong Kong's Olympics flag-bearer and fan favourite Stephanie Au is ready to quit sport – aged just 24
'Oriental Venus', as the Chinese media insist on calling her, has discovered there's more to life than endless laps up and down the pool
At 24, Stephanie Au Hoi-shun is ready to retire.
She’s already packed in more in her young life than most of us probably ever will – and having swapped the “mindless” grind of a mainland China training regime as an adolescent to a horizon-broadening few years in the United States’ liberal epicentre, University of California at Berkeley, she’s ready to find out what life has to offer beyond swimming.
Au, Hong Kong’s flag-bearer at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony, was part of the 4x100m Individual Medley relay team that arrived in Brazil knowing they had already made local history just by qualifying as one of the world’s top 16 teams – the first time a HK relay has ever done so.
Though they failed to break the seven-year-old HK record by a hair, they left the pool – a couple perhaps for good – able to reflect on a successful Olympics for themselves and Hong Kong swimming.
“It was just great to be there,” said Au, but after three Olympics, she’s had about enough.
“I’m pretty sure it might be my last one,” she said. “I’m not sure, but at least for me I’ve hit my target here and I’ll see how my body reacts, maybe after half a year of resting and decide to come back or not.”
WATCH: relive the action involving Hong Kong athletes on Day 7 at the Rio Olympics
Au was a hit on social media as the world tuned in, with online commenters wondering – in polite and not-so-polite fashion – who the attractive young lady carrying Hong Kong’s flag was.
Some Chinese media outlets have taken to calling her ‘Oriental Venus’ after her appearance at the Maracana. One columnist even opined, in a piece filed from somewhere in the 1950s: “As for me, let me confess that when I was watching the live telecast I couldn’t believe that the flag-bearer was an athlete, as she looked more like a TVB artiste” – as if that is the non plus ultra for a Hong Kong woman.
Au has done some adverts and photo shoots, but said: “If I don’t continue swimming, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I’ve put my sole focus on this Olympics before anything and wasn’t thinking much of my way out afterwards.
好耐冇笑住熱身, 笑住入call room, 笑住比賽，原來比賽可以咁開心，未見到時間成績，都已經可以答你「好滿意」。估唔到我嘅暫時最後一場水，終於俾返我最初落泳池嘅感覺。就係咁單純嘅快樂，我遺忘咗十年⋯⋯ 多謝我嘅隊友努力爭取到嚟奧運嘅資格，從而多咗記者到泳館現場採訪，令更多香港市民留意游泳項目。變相有更多越洋嘅支持同鼓勵，令我可以將拉車嘅阻力想像為香港人俾我嘅推動力。呢個旅程真係唔簡單。漫漫長路行到呢一步，夫復何求。 補充返: 我會好好休息，再決定去向。 Note to self: Always wear a smile. The gift of life will then be yours to give. #peaceout✌
“I read [some of the articles and comments] and it had put a little bit of pressure on my performance but I’m glad that from the opening ceremony to today it’s been a week and things are cooling off. They’re gonna say what they have to say and I’ll swim what I have to swim.”
Miss Hong Kong 2015, Louisa Mak, is here in Rio reporting for TVB, surely for her in-depth sporting knowledge and not because she was also crowned ‘Miss Photogenic’ in the channel’s throwback pageant.
Au could probably walk into such a role if that’s what she wants, and maybe she will, but she certainly displayed brains and insight to go with the looks as she reflected on her self-growth from her Olympic debut as a 16-year-old at Beijing 2008.
“It’s been 10ish years [swimming] and it’s been a really life-changing journey because I turned from a swim-train-rest mindless Olympic swimmer to more mature and basically a whole different self,” said ‘Shun BB’ as Chinese internet users have branded her.
“When I was 16 I trained in China and it was physically very tough for me to get through the training – mentally I was just blank, I wasn’t thinking much, I just go, whatever my coach told me, I do it.
“But after I went to the States to study, swimming has become mentally more challenging than ever for me.
“Ever since I get to see the world more, open my horizons, I know there are much more choices than just swimming. It has been a debate and struggle for me whether to continue.
“When I graduated [with a degree in environmental economics] all my friends were trying to get jobs and things like that but I decided to continue swimming – I almost thought to myself, ‘Is it an escape or the easy way out not to step into society?’ But I’m very glad that I chose to be a full-time athlete especially as it’s very uncommon in Hong Kong.”
Yvette Kong Man-yi is another of the team whose competitive swimming days might be over. Having spoken out about the struggles with depression that led her to quit the sport for a time, she seemed ready for something more mentally rewarding than the constant struggle to beat the pool’s timing clock. She was accepted for a masters degree in performance psychology at Edinburgh University, where she trained for the Games, just a few days ago.
“I’m going to take some time and think about what I have for the next few years, refresh myself and focus on my career again,” said the 23-year-old, like relay teammates Au and Camille Cheng also a Berkeley graduate.
“The journey to the Olympics has been such an amazing thing for me ... there’s a lot to process before I can take it all in. I hope I can just learn from these experiences, be a better person and share my experiences with the young people of Hong Kong.”
WATCH: Swimmer Yvette Kong's persistence pays off as she qualifies for her first Olympics
Cheng, 22, is keen to continue representing Hong Kong. Sze Hang-yu, the fourth member of the team, was in absolutely no doubt that she herself would too.
At 28, she was the big sister of the bunch and like Au was competing in a third Olympics.
“We had six girls and one boy [in the swimming squad] and five of them were at their first Olympics – I’m just glad to see them enjoying this big competition,” she said.
“I haven’t had enough swimming yet,” Sze added. “I’ll continue until the Asian Games  and after consider if I should go to 2020. I’ll see if any young swimmers can catch up with me or pass me so I can leave Hong Kong swimming in a better place.”
The team finished in 4:03.85, 0.15 seconds off the record, for 14th place overall.
Job done, Au left with a little message for the Hong Kong officials who have confined them to barracks in Rio.
“My family was here to see me – actually we leave in two days, and probably won’t be allowed to get out and move around though I really want to because we took 30 hours to get here. It would be really nice to go out and see something – but it depends on our chef de mission ...”