Hong Kong teen Haughey set to leave swimming world in her wake

Siobhan Bernadette Haughey, 15, took the 100m freestyle gold at world junior championships in Dubai ... and says she can go faster still

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 3:26am

With the confidence of youth, Siobhan Bernadette Haughey says she can swim faster. That is very good news for Hong Kong swimming, which just over a fortnight ago discovered that it had a diamond in the rough in its midst, which with some polish might be able to sparkle brighter than any swimmer from this city ever has.

Haughey, 15, grabbed the international limelight last month when she became the first local swimmer to win a gold medal at the world junior championships. The St Paul's Secondary School student won the blue riband race, the 100 metres freestyle, at the fourth edition of the competition held in Dubai, in the process defeating an Olympic gold medallist and world record holder.

Her time of 54.47 seconds was a personal best and broke the meet record (54.90) set by American Lia Neal in 2011. She came within a tenth of a second of breaking Hannah Wilson's Hong Kong record (54.35), which seems bound to fall soon.

"I can swim faster," says Haughey as she sips a glass of water in the company of her father Darach and mother Canjo at Hong Kong Football Club. "There is a lot of room for improvement and I know I can do better."

I’ll be slightly sad when she breaks my record, but proud … it won’t take long either

Haughey is already the talking point of the local swimming community. Three-time Olympian Wilson, who sometimes does dry-land training with her, says: "Siobhan's work ethic will lead her to great things. She has so much potential - I will be slightly sad when she breaks my record, but proud at the same time. I know she's going to do it and it won't take long either."

Another Olympian, Annemarie Munk, said: "She is the future of Hong Kong swimming. Her victory was world class."

Haughey was one of 11 local swimmers participating for the first time at the world junior championships (for under-18s). She arrived in Dubai with her best time, 55.77, placing her ninth fastest on the start list.

"I was extremely nervous as this was my first big international competition. But in the heat I swam the fastest time of 55.02 to qualify for the semi-finals," said Haughey. "When I walked out for the semi-finals, it was a novel experience to hear my name being announced and it made me even more edgy.

"My coach [Michael Fasching] said afterwards he had never seen me so nervous. I was worried as even though I had a fast time in the heats, I knew the rest could go faster than me."

She qualified with the sixth fastest time for the final, 55.04, which comprised a stellar field including Lithuanian star Ruta Meilutyte, 16, winner of an Olympic gold in the 100m breaststroke at the London Olympics and who holds two world records and six European records in that discipline.

"Michael told me to just go out and enjoy myself in the final. He said I had nothing to lose and that made me feel relaxed," Haughey said. "I didn't have a good start but I started catching up the others by the end of the first 50 and at the turn I had so much energy that I began sprinting and went really fast in the last 25 metres. I was shocked at the end to find out I had won."

She had beaten her PB by more than a second and the Lithuanian wonder-girl had to settle for the silver medal. Haughey's effort would have been good enough to see her qualify for the finals at the recent senior world championships in Barcelona.

And she can go faster. "I know I can make so many more improvements, especially in my start. I had one of the slowest reaction times to the others and this is one area I will be looking at improving. Also my technique can get better," says Haughey, who also won a bronze medal in the 50m free in Dubai.

Haughey was five when she tagged along behind her elder sister, Aisling, for swimming lessons at the South China Athletic Association. It began as recreation - "so that they could learn to swim in case they went on a junk trip," says dad Darach - but it wasn't long before coaches realised she was a natural-born talent.

"I won my first medal in local swimming competition when I was seven and as time went by I started breaking age group records for freestyle, breaststroke and IM [individual medley]. The first time I represented Hong Kong was at an interport school swimming competition in China in 2008," said Haughey, who trains 17 hours a week. An alumni of the Harry Wright swimming school, she now aims to represent Hong Kong at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and next year's Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.

"It's back to the pool in the short term as I will be participating in the East Asian Games in Tianjin next month. But I hope to train hard and improve further so that I will be able to swim at the 2016 Olympics.

"The way I look at it is I will go out each time trying to improve on my personal best, nothing more, so that there is no pressure on me."