Meet the Hong Kong triathlete who rediscovered her love of the sport through competing in Ironmans and half-marathons
Leanne Szeto has an eye on returning to the national fold with a final shot at the Olympics in sight
It took a series of impressive performances at different sports to convince Hong Kong triathlete Leanne Szeto that she might have what it takes to relaunch her Olympic dream, but as she steps up her preparation to tackle the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Half-Marathon in the new year, Tokyo 2020 is back in focus.
Despite a strong performance at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, where she finished a creditable eighth, the 26-year-old came to the conclusion she just might not have what it takes to fulfil her ambition.
Her Asiad time of two hours, 10 minutes and 15 seconds would have been good enough for just 48th place of the 55 competitors that lined up at the Rio Games.
“After the Asian Games, the Olympic Games seemed pretty far away for me,” Szeto said. “It was only two years, but I understood my own ability and that I couldn’t make the  Olympics in two years time, so I decided to quit the team and focus on my career instead.”
Szeto had been making good strides with the Hong Kong national team, who she joined as a 14-year-old, but the training demands were taking their toll and she quit to pursue a career as an engineer.
“The training was crazy,” Szeto said. “You train 40 hours a week – every morning when I woke up, I jumped in the water and swam for two hours before breakfast.
“My passion slowly decreased. I was physically tired every single day. No matter how tough you are mentally, it still tortures you every single day.”
It was at this point that Szeto began to compete in various other endurance events including trail-running and Ironman competitions, as well as 10k runs.
“After I quit the team I started Ironman races and rose to a pretty top level in Asia and in the world,” she said. “I think it was a mental thing; I was no longer in a team, there was no pressure at all and I stared working full-time so I really treasured every moment that I could train. Every morning I would wake up to train at 5am without any complaints.
“When I was in the national team, I never wanted to [start training].
“Mentally, my mind has changed. I have a new passion for the sport and I’m training on my own with my coaches and I have good discipline now. I’ve trained myself to a high level.”
At this point in her development, Szeto believes she is equipped with the tools to succeed in the areas where she thinks she didn’t quite make the grade as a young Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI) athlete competing in sprint triathlon events.
“When I first started the Olympic distance triathlon, I didn’t enjoy it because I hadn’t gained the endurance at that time,” she said.
“Lots of Olympian (triathletes) are 30-plus years old and in the Hong Kong team currently, most of them are in the transition from the junior [sprint] level to the senior stage, and to get to a high level in the Olympic distance triathlon needs at least four or five years. It’s not easy to train for the Olympic distance.”
Szeto believes her experiences in endurance races, such as the Hong Kong Half-Marathon, have equipped her with the know-how to compete with Olympic triathletes.
Now, with an eye on fulfilling her biggest sporting ambition and making it to the Tokyo Games, she is considering a return to the Hong Kong national team fold.
“Going to the Olympics, of course, is every athlete’s dream, and it is one of my dreams too,” she said. “I’m training pretty well. If I want to get back to the national team, I could easily beat the time required (to qualify). I need to talk to the national team coaches. It’s not just my decision.
“Putting my career on hold for one or two years won’t be a big matter at this time in my life. I haven’t made a decision yet.”
Szeto, who is participating in carmaker BMW's iRunners programme this year, which will make a charitable donation for every kilometre ran during training for the Marathon, won’t be making any decisions before running in the 2018 Hong Kong Half-Marathon, an event where she finished runner-up last year, but in which she admits she is still learning the nuances of distance running.
“Last year was my first half-marathon, and I made a pretty big mistake. At the start, I was so hyper. I kept a 10k pace, which is under 40 minutes for my first 10km.
“Because I pushed too hard on the first 10k, after the climb in the Western Harbour Tunnel, I was like, ‘oh no, I can’t survive another 5km till the end!’
“I started way too fast and was trying to chase up everyone at the very beginning. I won’t do that again. It was a big lesson learned.”