Graceful exit for Tsai

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am

Everyone was talking about Hannah Wilson.

About Hong Kong's first medal at the World University Games in Belgrade. And about the 20-year-old who may try for a medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

Wilson is very much the new kid on the block, taking over the spotlight from 'veteran' Sherry Tsai Hiu-wai, who turns 26 in September, and is in the final laps of her career.

Tsai could not be happier.

'This is going to be my last July as a swimmer, followed by my last World Championships in Rome, my last Asian Indoor Games in November and my last East Asian Games in December. Then, no more 'lasts' in swimming,' said the backstroker after finishing one of her gruelling four-hour training sessions in Wan Chai as she gears up for these farewell events.

'I always treasure the opportunity to represent Hong Kong and this has never changed, even if I am now approaching the end of my sporting career. Although I may not be able to win a lot of medals as before, I still give my best efforts in every single race.'

Tsai admitted the past two weeks had been among the most exciting in swimming following Wilson's gold medal achievements in the World University Games.

Any envy?

'Of course not. I am happy to see Wilson's excellent performances. We are all here to strive for honour for Hong Kong and she made it. There is nothing to feel jealous about when someone has produced better results. After all, we are from the same college in the United States,' she said

Tsai has become an icon of the sport she became involved in when her parents enrolled her into a public swimming course at the Sports Institute when she was 10.

She holds 12 Hong Kong records over short and long courses (including relay events), and was the flag bearer for the Hong Kong delegation to the 2004 Athens Olympics - an honour she shares with the cream of Hong Kong's athletes, including windsurfer Lee Lai-shan and cyclist Wong Kam-po.

Tsai also qualified for three Olympics - Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 and was in the relay team that won a bronze medal in the 4x100m freestyle at the Doha Asian Games in 2006.

She collected eight gold medals at the inaugural Asian Indoor Games in Macau in 2007.

These performances were far from her mind when she started out. 'My parents only wanted me to become a healthy kid and expand my everyday life by making more friends because I was quite shy when I was a little girl,' said Tsai.

'That's why they put me into the public swimming course offered by the Sports Institute, which had nothing to do with elite training. In fact, my favourite sport in primary school was track and field.'

However, it didn't take long for Tsai's talents to be spotted by the coaches who used the same pool to train high achievers.

'My family had plans of moving to Australia in the '90s, but because my performances earned me a place in the Hong Kong team they dropped the plan and stayed in Hong Kong,' she said.

'And swimming had also helped me in other development. I was admitted to a top secondary school in Hong Kong because of my swimming talent and was later offered the opportunity to study at the University of California at Berkeley.

'After I graduated in the US, I came back to Hong Kong and I'm now taking a masters degree in sports administration at the Chinese University and will graduate in May next year. This has all been possible because I did well in swimming.

'Although I have gone through a lot of tough training over the years, including swimming 10,000 metres as part of my daily schedule, I must admit I have gained more than I would have dreamed of from swimming.'

This has inspired her to give back to the sport, setting up the Tsai Hiu-wai Swimming Fund early this year.

'I donated HK$50,000 to set up the fund to help up-and-coming swimmers who have difficulties in meeting their training costs. Because of the generosity of some coaches, the fund has swelled to more than HK$100,000 and I will continue to top up the fund when I start working next year and hopefully more people will follow suit,' she said.

Being the senior member of the Hong Kong team, Tsai is now more concerned about the welfare of her younger colleagues.

When the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association said it would charge each of the eight members HK$5,000 to take part in next week's World Championships in Rome, Tsai went public saying it was unfair for swimmers to have to pay as they were representing Hong Kong in a major event. 'The association has recently returned the money to each of us, saying they received a donation, but they did not say where it came from,' said Tsai.

'It's good that people are starting to show concern about sport in Hong Kong, but I hope more can be done by the association and authorities to lower the burden for athletes.'

Tsai's path to glory and future hopes

1 Started swimming at the age of 10 and developed into a backstroke and individual medley specialist

2 Holds 12 Hong Kong records - both long and short courses - and won eight gold medals at the 2007 Asian Indoor Games in Macau

3 Qualified for three Olympics, from Sydney 2000 to Beijing 2008, and was the flag bearer at the opening ceremony at Athens 2004

4 Is studying a masters degree in sports administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

5 Will compete at the World Championships in Rome next week and bring the curtain down on her career at the East Asian Games in December