When Fenella Ng Gar-loc was four, she was fished out of a Macau swimming pool by a life guard who thought she was drowning. Ha, ha! How could that overzealous guardian of the pool have known that the little girl would one day be very much at home on water.
'I was swimming perfectly, though perhaps not in any recognisable stroke or form and I was 'rescued' by this over eager life guard. It was so embarrassing,' laughs Fenella.
That incident, 28 years ago, still holds a special place in Fenella's mind and tickles her pink. Probably because of the sheer absurdity of it all when you consider that today she is most celebrated for her feats in water-related sports. Fenella has represented Hong Kong for over 20 years, competing in five Asian Games and two Olympics. Four of those Asian Games were as a swimmer. The last one, the 1998 Games in Bangkok, was in rowing. She also took part at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and then four years later in Seoul as a swimmer.
In Sydney, the 32-year-old will go down in the annals of sport as the only Hong Kong athlete to compete in two different sports at the Olympics. After a 12-year break, the swimmer-turned-rower returns to the Olympic arena and will take part in the women's heavyweight singles.
'I remember watching the Barcelona Games on TV in 1992 when I was taking a break from swimming and thinking at the time that I really missed being there and competing. Despite having been to other major Games during the last few years, it is never the same. There is an atmosphere at the Olympics that is always that little bit more special,' says Fenella.
And she is undoubtedly going to feel the occasion when she leads the Hong Kong contingent out at tomorrow's opening ceremony at the awe-inspiring Olympic Stadium. Not only will it be the first time that Fenella will be carrying the Hong Kong flag at a major Games, but it is also the first time that the bauhinia flag will be seen at the Olympics.
'I feel very honoured and proud to have been chosen to carry the flag on this occasion. I have had a long and successful career and I am sure this will be my last Olympics. Carrying the SAR flag into the Olympic arena during the opening ceremony will be the icing on the cake.'
The switch from swimming to rowing happened during 1994-95. Having realised that she had reached her limit as a swimmer, Fenella went in search of a new challenge. 'I had been involved in swimming for many years, having competed in my first major games in 1982, been Asian champion in 1984, won two Asian Games medals and represented Hong Kong in two Olympics. In 1993, after returning to Hong Kong from college, I decided to give it two more years with the goal of getting a medal at the 1994 Asian Games, which I did in the relay.
'By then I felt that I had reached my full potential and did not believe any amount of flogging up and down the pool every day was going to lead to any major improvements. So I felt the need to find a new challenge.
'Why rowing? Choosing a new sport was partly a process of elimination and partly luck. I felt that I should make use of my aerobic base developed through swimming, choose an Olympic sport and to take on a Hong Kong Sports Development Board 'focus' sport to get the level of support necessary.
'My options were thus narrowed down to triathlon, rowing and cycling. I had never done any serious cycling before and did not really fancy the busy roads of Hong Kong. I had never rowed either, but I had done a little indoor rowing on the ergometers and knew that my scores were already quite respectable in comparison with world rankings.'
Much to the delight of Hong Kong Sports Institute head coach Chris Perry, Fenella signed up. She has not looked back since then. In the past six seasons, she has more than held her own, peaking with a fine performance at the 1998 World Championships in Germany where she became the first Hong Kong athlete to enter the final of an event, finishing sixth in the lightweight singles sculls. She also won two silver medals at the Bangkok Asian Games in that same year.
Her biggest handicap in Sydney is that she is taking part in an event which is 'alien' to her. In Sydney, there will be no lightweight category (under 59 kilograms) and Fenella has been forced to put on some weight so she can compete in the heavier division where the average weight of the girls is around 85 kilograms.
'I will be competing against some very big girls. In rowing, height (leverage) is a big factor and I will be at a big disadvantage. Some of the top heavyweights are 6'3' and over 85 kilos. 'I'm unlikely to be in with a medal chance. My goal is to have the 'perfect race', do my best and finish as high up the rankings as possible.'
Her build-up to Sydney has been intensive, having taken part in events in Europe and Japan before moving to the Gold Coast, Australia a month ago where she has been training with the New Zealand and British Olympic squads. In a few days it will be all over. The months of preparation and planning will boil down to mere minutes on the water. Then what?
'I will take a few weeks off to evaluate my options, as I do every year. I will then make a decision and set goals which I feel are appropriate. I'm not really sure if, and when, I will retire. But when I do, I'm sure I will miss the training and the competitions very much.'
Having already acquired a chemical engineering degree from the University of Leeds and now studying for a masters degree in finance with the University of Leicester, Fenella is armed to face the world. And, of course, she has long-time boyfriend Michael Tse as a shoulder to lean on. Tse is no stranger to rowing, having represented Hong Kong in rowing at the Atlanta Olympics four years ago. 'He is very supportive and has helped me all the way,' says Fenella. Do we hear wedding bells?
Having travelled a long road, we asked Fenella what memories she cherished most. Not surprisingly, she has many. 'There are many memorable occasions, all of which are unique and special in their own way. The first Hong Kong title, the first Hong Kong record, the first major games, the first Asian medal . . . and of course carrying the SAR flag at the 2000 Olympics. I hope that none of these memories fade away with the passing of time.'
Highly unlikely. After all, she still remembers that life guard fishing her out of the water.
FENELLA'S SWIMMING CAREER
1979 Joined national squad.
1982 Commonwealth Games (Brisbane).
Asian Games (New Delhi).
1984 Asian Swimming Championships (Seoul) 200m freestyle Gold
400m freestyle Gold
4x100m freestyle medley Silver
4x100m medley relay Silver
Olympic Games (Los Angeles).
1986 Asian Games (Seoul) 4x100 freestyle relay Bronze
Commonwealth Games (Edinburgh).
1988 Olympic Games (Seoul).
1990 Asian Games (Beijing).
1994 Asian Games (Hiroshima) 4x100m freestyle relay Silver
Hong Kong records held: 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle, 400m freestyle,
200m butterfly, 4x100m freestyle relay, 4x100m medley relay.
FENELLA'S ROWING CAREER
1995 Italian National Championships Lightweight double sculls Gold
World Championships (Finland) Lightweight double sculls 20th
Asian Championships (China) Lightweight double sculls Gold
Open double sculls Silver
Open single sculls Bronze
1996 Olympic Qualification Regatta Lightweight double sculls Silver
1997 All Japan Championships Open single sculls Gold
World Cup Regatta (Switzerland) Lightweight singles sculls 12th
World Championships (France) Lightweight single sculls Seventh
East Asian Games (South Korea) Lightweight double sculls Silver
Lightweight single sculls ilver
1998 World Cup Regatta (Germany) Lightweight single sculls Fifth
World Cup Regatta (Switzerland) Lightweight single sculls Seventh
World Championships (Germany) Lightweight single sculls Sixth
Danish National Championships Lightweight single sculls Gold
Scandinavian Championships (Denmark) Lightweight single sculls Gold
Asian Games (Thailand) Lightweight single sculls Silver
Open single sculls ilver
1999 World Cup Regatta (Belgium) Lightweight single sculls 11th
World Championships (Canada) Lightweight single sculls 14th
2000 Asian Indoor Rowing Championships Lightweight singles Gold
Lightweight doubles Bronze
World Cup Regatta (Germany) Lightweight single sculls 10th
World Cup Regatta (Austria) Lightweight single sculls Seventh
Ratzeburg Intl Regatta (Germany) Lightweight single sculls Gold
All Japan Championships Lightweight single sculls Gold