Sport – not looks – changed my life, says Cecilia Yeung, high-jump star and model who has become one of Hong Kong’s hottest stars
HK high jumper is aiming for the top and hopes she earns respect for her ability rather than her looks
Former Miss Hong Kong Olivia Cheng Man-nga is remembered for her looks and not for her high jump skills – Cecilia Yeung Man-wai is treading a similar path, but hoping for just the opposite.
“I want people to remember me as a track and field athlete, not my part-time work as a model,” said the 22-year-old, who has become one of the hottest celebrities in Hong Kong in recent months.
“Without sports, I would be nothing, probably just an ordinary girl, leaving school after finishing IVE [post secondary] and working as a flight attendant, a job I aspired to when I was young.
“But thanks to sport, my life has completely changed. I can represent Hong Kong in different overseas competitions. I have broken the Hong Kong record a couple of times and attracted advertisers in the commercial world.
“I also have the opportunity of studying at the University of Hong Kong [a double degree in marketing and business design innovation]. Sport has made a difference for me.”
Some 40 years ago, Cheng also excelled at high jump, setting a Hong Kong record, before being crowned Miss Hong Kong and moving into the entertainment business.
Two months ago, Yeung shattered her own HK record when she cleared 1.88 metres at a Taiwan meet, and shot to local fame. Local tabloids, not famed for their enlightened feminist attitudes, may focus more on her looks than sporting achievements, branding her “high-jump goddess”, and Yeung has starred in adverts for top brands such as Microsoft and WTT, but beauty pageants are not on the agenda.
“I never intended to become a high jumper, although I liked running around and jumping in the playground when I was a kid,” said Yeung.
“In fact, I knew nothing about track and field as my primary interest was volleyball. I was a member of my secondary school team because I am tall with strong jumping power. It was not until later that I discovered my talent in high jump.”
A student in secondary school on a housing estate in Sha Tin, Yeung took part in the high jump at a school sports day, hoping to medal in a less popular event among her peers.
“I had no idea what the Fosbury Flop was and simply jumped with faith,” recalled Yeung, who ended up with the silver medal and a fast track into the school athletics team.
It was here that Yeung met her coach, Wan Tat-yung, a retired athlete who happened to be a high jumper.
“He became our school team coach and wanted to take one male and one female high jumper to open competitions in Hong Kong,” said Yeung, who stands at 1.72m.
“My height and jumping power caught his eye and that’s how I started in athletics.
“He never expected I could make it to the Hong Kong team and become a full-time athlete. He just wanted to give us a trial and see how far we could go.”
In the beginning, it wasn’t very far – or high – as she could only jump 1.5m in her first open event in the Hong Kong League, finishing second last.
“I was not discouraged,” she said. “Coach Wan was a good motivator and always reinforced my belief to keep going.
“In the early days, I never thought about breaking the Hong Kong record nor winning any medal on the international stage. My target was just to win some school events and local competitions.”
It was not until a few years later when she cleared 1.7m and came close to the Hong Kong record of 1.78m that Yeung knew it was in her grasp.
“I realised I wasn’t too far away and I could break the record given more hard work and effort,” she said.
As Yeung started building her career, she was also offered the opportunity to move to Diocesan Girls’ School, one of the best in Hong Kong in terms of sports and academic results.
“My coach also moved to Diocesan Boys’ School when his sporting career started to take off and therefore he advised me to take the same path when the opportunity came,” she said.
“It was not easy, especially on the academic side, as I was never a bright student and my original school was taught in Chinese, while DGS has a strong English tradition. It took a lot of time and effort to catch up with my classmates.
“Without that move, I would never have had the opportunity to secure a university place in Hong Kong, needless to say the opportunity of studying at the University of Hong Kong.
“This would never have happened without me becoming a high jumper. As a result, my life has changed completely.”
If there’s one regret for Yeung, it’s that her grandmother is not around to witness her success.
“I was brought up in a family which I would say was ‘not perfect’, just like many Hong Kong families these days,” she said.
“My parents divorced in my younger days and I had to stay with my grandma and a younger brother in a public housing estate.
“There were a lot of times when I argued with grandma and did not know how to handle our relationship, even if she was one of the very few relatives I had.
“Now I have become a more mature person but sadly my grandma has passed away.
“There are moments when I think about her and miss the time we stayed together.”
After setting the new Hong Kong record, Yeung hopes she has laid the foundation for three major upcoming events – the Asian Athletics Championships in India, the World University Games in Taipei and the National Games in Tianjin in late August.
“I would not aim for any record in those three events and would be happy with a performance around 1.85m.
“I need to consolidate my skills at that level before making another lift in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” she said.
She will compete in the Inter-City Championships which take place at Tseung Kwan Sports Ground this weekend. The two-day event features over 100 overseas competitors from 15 teams in the region including Japan, Korea, Philippine, Singapore, Thailand, Chinese Taipei, Vietnam, Macau and mainland China.