Siobhan Haughey isn't trained to just be a leader in the pool, but also "in the real world"

By Ben Pang, with additional reporting by staff writer

And despite being a super athlete, the 18-year-old approached the Rio Games as if it was any other competition

By Ben Pang, with additional reporting by staff writer |

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Siobhan Haughey makes it look easy, but she had to sacrifice a lot to get to where she is. Photo: Reuters

Being Hong Kong’s first swimmer to reach the semis in the modern era at the Rio Olympics is a major highlight for any athlete, but for SCMP’s 2014 Student of the Year – Sportsperson winner Siobhan Haughey, that was not the only one.

“One of them would definitely be walking in the opening ceremony. I have never seen so many people in a stadium before. It was a very special evening because that was when it really hit me that I was at the Olympics! Many of my friends also saw me on television and sent me screenshots of it,” she says.

After such a tremendous moment, Haughey might have been satisfied. But instead she went and broke a Hong Kong record. She came first in the heats of the 200m freestyle on August 8 with 1:56.91, a time that also broke her own personal record.

She missed out on a place in the final, finishing 6th in her semi-final with 1:57.56 – joint 13th overall – but can count herself among one of the fastest 16 swimmers in the world.

But being in the top 16 meant she had to sacrifice – there were a lot of things Haughey couldn’t do in the days before the race.

First, she couldn’t overthink things. “To keep myself calm, I try not to think too much before the races. Overthinking only makes me more anxious.”

She also can’t let herself get distracted by social media. Even a few days with a smartphone might seem impossible for some. But to stay more focused, Haughey managed to stay away from Facebook or Instagram.

Although she is a super athlete, she is still human, and she admits to feeling tense before competitions. “I was quite nervous before I left for Rio. However, my coach told me not to think of it as the biggest sporting event. Just treat it as a normal competition or another swim meet. And this really calmed my nerves.”

The few days before the races were full of memorable moments, too, although in a way these were more painful memories.

“Australian swimmer Cate Campbell, who is my favourite athlete, was expected to win the 100m freestyle event at the Games as she had broken the world record in that event at the 2016 Australian Grand Prix meet with a time of 52.06, not long before Rio. Yet she didn’t perform her best and eventually came 6th. She might have felt bad but she handled it very well. She maintained a positive attitude and that’s something I can learn from her. Failures won’t destroy us.”

As well as competing in Rio, Haughey has also just completed her first year at the University of Michigan in the US. Haughey has found that training in the US isn’t easy, but it’s full of cheer, inspiration and support.

“Training is tough, but all the swimmers there always encourage each other and keep everyone accountable. The coaches also try to individualise each swimmer’s training, so that we all get what we need. But most importantly, they make sure that we become leaders and the best not only in the pool but also in the real world.”

With her experiences at the Rio Olympics and specialised training in the US, Haughey is on track to make history for Hong Kong once more at Tokyo 2020.

Bench Notes

You can take the abilities of any animal during one competition. Which do you choose and why?
A falcon. I’m sure people would expect me to choose a sea animal but falcons are well known for their speed, aggression and concentration. It would be nice to have these qualities during a race.

Which fictional character would you choose as your teammate?
I would want the legendary Chinese female warrior Mulan from the Disney film Mulan. She is a smart, strong and independent girl who remains persistent in adversity. Not only does she always cheer her teammates up, she is also able to boost morale of the whole team. I’m sure she would be an excellent teammate.

What is the one food you’ll never give up?
72 per cent dark chocolate. I have to eat it before my races and it’s my favourite food in the world.

If you could have any superpower for 24 hours, what would you choose and how would you use your power?
I wish I could speak every language in the world so I could travel around the world without any communication problems.

What song title best describes you when you’re playing your sport?
The Nights by Avicii.