Vegan vindication: Asian Games medallist’s switch to plant-based diet speeds recovery from serious injury, and boosts her training and results
Hong Kong fencer Vivian Kong had been thinking of turning vegan for years; a serious injury led her to adopt the diet, despite scepticism from athletes and her family. Suddenly she could train better, and in June she won gold at the Asian championships, then Asian Games bronze
Double medal-winning Asian Games fencer Vivian Kong Man-wai had thought about turning vegan for several years. It took a serious injury for her to take the plunge and adopt a plant-based diet – a lifestyle change she says played a big part in her recovery and return to the top of her sport.
In June, just a year after knee surgery to repair her anterior cruciate ligament, Kong became the first Hong Kong woman fencer to win a gold medal at the Asian Fencing Championships.
That isn’t the only change her injury brought about. Previously media-shy, the 24-year-old feels it is important to be more vocal about the changes she has made in order to continue competing.
“I can be an example to show it’s possible, and it’s more motivation for me to work harder, have better results, and tell my story about how eating plant-based foods made me better and made me feel better too,” she said in an interview at the Hong Kong Sports Institute before heading to Jakarta for the Asian Games, where she was flag bearer for the Hong Kong team.
Kong, who competes in the épée category, suffered her injury in 2017 during training overseas for the fencing world championships, when she made a jump, landed badly and saw her left knee buckle. An MRI revealed a serious anterior cruciate ligament injury.
She returned to Hong Kong for surgery, and was told her recovery would take six months to a year. Her absence from competitions such as the National Games and the Asian Championships left her crushed. “I went from really high to a real low of lows,” she recalls.
At a crossroads, Kong considered quitting the sport, despite the possibility of competing at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, or go back to university and get a job. Her mother, not wanting her to go through the ordeal of another major injury, nudged her to move on.
Kong enrolled in a part-time master’s degree course in Chinese law. But deep down, she felt robust physically.
While undergoing rehabilitation following the surgery, she didn’t miss a beat in training. She worked with her coach on technique, focused on arm movements.
And she changed her diet.
Kong had avoided turning vegan to avoid the hassle the diet would cause her when she went out for meals with family and friends. She compromised by being pescatarian – avoiding meat but still eating fish and seafood.
“After the injury, I wanted to change and be a new person,” said Kong. “I wanted to recover faster and after my injury, I kept googling what foods to eat to recover quickly.” The search results all pointed her towards plant-based dishes. So she became vegan.
Kong ate anti-inflammatory foods such as pumpkin and turmeric to help reduce the swelling in her leg following surgery. She went on juice cleanses, too. “Every day I felt myself get better, the swelling was going down, I felt my strength coming back, I could walk again,” she recalled.
Three months after her injury she was ready for competition.
Her return to the sport at an event in China was nerve-racking. Kong was overcome with emotion as she was about to begin her first match. Her opponent saw Kong’s tears and asked: “Are you OK?” she says. Kong laughs as she recalls the look her opponent gave her.
She did well enough that day to maintain her top-16 ranking. “I didn’t know if my knee was ready,” she said, acknowledging the risk of reinjury. Her performance gave her confidence. A few months later at a competition in Cuba, she did even better, winning a bronze medal.
Kong saw her strong performance as validation of her dietary change.
“After I turned vegan, I trained a lot more and I would have as much muscle pain, but it wouldn’t last three days like before. Now I could get ready to go the next day,” she said.
Sportspeople still have misconceptions about plant-based diets, however, and people around her were less convinced. She was encouraged to eat meat, and told it was fundamental for an athlete’s stamina to sustain them for competition.
Even Kong’s family were sceptical about her plant-based diet.
When she won the bronze medal in Cuba, they said she didn’t win gold because she didn’t eat meat. “I was really sad about [that Cuba performance] already, and then they blamed it on my diet,” she said with a gasp as if stabbed in the gut.
During a Chinese New Year feast this year, they tried to nudge her to eat chicken congee at a restaurant. You need meat for muscles and to win, they told her.
Her coach, Octavian Zidaru, was not among the naysayers. He said her diet is not a problem. “Fencing is first of all a psychological sport,” he said. The Romanian said plant-powered athletes might be seen as new in Hong Kong, but that was not so in the rest of the world.
The criticism of her dietary choice prompted her to speak up about its benefits. She reached out to David Yeung, founder of Green Monday – a social enterprise set up to advocate sustainable, healthy, and mindful living – and asked if there was anything she could do to support his advocacy of plant-based eating.
To maintain peak performance, Kong does yoga every morning and trains almost every day, putting in three to five hours of practice on her technique. She is experimenting with routines to add to her regime, such as cross training, to add excitement to her workouts.
Since her knee injury, she is doing more weight training and body-weight routines to build up the strength of her hamstrings, glutes and abs and add muscle to prevent injuries, especially to her ligaments.
As for her diet, Kong’s meals are heavy on green vegetables and tofu. “I love tofu, I eat it every day. I think I eat too much tofu,” she adds.
For breakfast she usually has avocado toast. Her other meals are filled with grains – brown rice, black rice, quinoa, and copious amounts of vegetables.
“I enjoy eating vegetables so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything,” she says. She loves greens such as baby bak choi and choi sum.
Dinner is stir-fried vegetables or roasted vegetables.
Athletes expect to suffer injury, and Kong had previously suffered bruises and twisted ankles. Having overcome an injury as serious as a torn anterior cruciate ligament, she is less afraid of taking on challenges, she says.
After winning bronze medals in the individual and team épée competitions at the Asian Games, Kong’s biggest goals now are to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and obtain her master’s in Chinese law.
“I’ve gone through so much but it’s already been a year. It went by so quickly,” she says of her recovery.