Hong Kong pro athletes share their experiences, saying passion and family support are important for a full-time career in sports

  • Olympic fencer Ryan Choi, currently ranked no. 12 in the world, encourages aspiring athletes to make sure they are driven by genuine interest in the sport, not fame
  • Since many pro athletes need to start training from a young age, family support is crucial
Kelly Fung |

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Ryan Choi and Lam Siu-hang, who competed in the most recent Olympics in fencing and table tennis respectively, as well as local badminton players Vincent Wong Wing-ki and Reginald Lee Chun-hei gathered at La Salle College to share their experiences as pro athletes. Photo: La Salle College

Hong Kong Olympic fencer Ryan Choi Chun-yin has a message for aspiring athletes: make sure you’re driven by a genuine interest in the sport, not fame.

At La Salle College on Thursday, Choi and Lam Siu-hang, who competed in the most recent Olympic Games in fencing and table tennis, joined local badminton players Vincent Wong Wing-ki and Reginald Lee Chun-hei at their alma mater to share their experience as elite athletes – and even played a few friendly games with students.

Although Choi said he has seen fencing gaining popularity, he had a piece of advice for students getting involved in the sport: “do not fence for fame.”

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“Fence because of a genuine interest in it. Do not do it because you see fencers get popular with all the advertising,” he said. “The motive behind fencing is really important.”

Choi, 24, now ranked no. 12 in the world, led the foil team at the National Games after the withdrawal of Olympic champion Edgar Cheung Ka-long, winning a bronze medal for the city.

Choi began fencing when he was in Primary Four, and initially only started doing it because the class was run by a friend of his mother’s. At first, he was reluctant to attend his lessons, but to his surprise, he eventually fell in love with the sport and it has since become his passion.

Olympic athlete Ryan Choi Chun-yin said fencers should be driven by their genuine interest in the sport, not fame. Photo: SCMP/ Kelly Fung

Reminiscing on his student days, Choi said competing for his school during his Form Two and Form Three years made him “happier than competing at the Olympics”.

“It was so easy to feel happy, like when you saw your teammates cheering and hugging each other. Even if there was a conflict, the sentiment was pure and simple,” he said.

At his first Olympic Games, Choi said he wasn’t at his best because of the overwhelming amount of attention he received.

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“During the Olympics, I could not handle the pressure that well because of all the attention from the media and the public,” he said, adding that he did not normally experience this feeling at other competitions.

However, he believed it was good for him to learn how to handle the media and attention, saying it wouldn’t get the best of him next time.

Choi only started training full-time when he was in university, which is rather late for a fencer. He realised it was impossible for him to balance academics and fencing, so he set aside his studies and went all out.

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“My original plan was to finish university and turn pro after graduation,” he said, “but I did not want to miss out on the golden age for athletes.”

“I was very sure about my passion for fencing, and I wanted to achieve something great with the sport,” he said.

Lam Siu-hang, an Olympic table tennis player who also competed in Tokyo, said that family support is very important for young, full-time athletes.

Lam Siu-hang has a friendly play-off with students at La Salle College. Photo: La Salle College

“My mother wanted me to finish my HKDSE exams before I began training full-time, but I felt that it’d be too late,” he said, adding that many players in Hong Kong only start training full-time after secondary school.

The 24-year-old said he also received support from his school that allowed him to finish his university entrance exams, including tutorial lessons that allowed him to catch up to his classmates.

Badminton player Vincent Wong Wing-ki agreed that family support is crucial.

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“When I became a full-time athlete, there wasn’t much funding or support. Walking this path requires an unwavering determination,” the 31-year-old said.

Studying only three years in secondary school, Wong turned pro at 15.

“My family’s first reaction was to ask me to finish Form Five, so that I could lay a foundation in my studies,” he said. But after representing Hong Kong for the first time in a youth competition, he realised that he had a long way to go in his training, and felt like he had to catch up with the other young athletes who had a head start.

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“That experience made me more committed to my sport and inspired me to walk this path early. It also taught me that I had to practise more than everyone else,” he said.

“Persuading my parents to let me train full-time when I was a Form Three student was the hardest thing I’ve done,” he said. “I told them if I did not start immediately, I would have a slim chance to succeed.”

From then on, Wong endeavoured to prove to his parents that he had made the right decision.

Vincent Wong Wing-ki hits a return towards India’s Srikanth Kidambi during their men’s second round match at the Japan Open Badminton Championships in Tokyo in September 2018. Photo: AFP

“If you’re going to become a full-time athlete, do not do it for someone else. You are responsible for your decision. Make sure the sacrifice is worth it.”

Looking back, Wong said he has no regrets.

“Think twice before you start on every path you choose for yourself, so that you will feel happy when you look back,” he said.

“Even if you do not win a championship, you have already succeeded as an athlete as long as you made the effort,” he said. “The most important thing is whether you’ve held yourself accountable.”

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