Hong Kong teen swimmer Alvin Ip on loneliness, making sacrifices and his sports role model - and no, it's not Michael Phelps

By Kelly Ho

The German Swiss International School student says the biggest hurdles for swimmers are often the mental ones

By Kelly Ho |

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Alvin achieved a new personal best time in April, but it took two years of hard work to do it.

How much does one second mean to you? If it doesn’t seem like much, try putting yourself in swimmer Alvin Ip Ho-sheun’s shoes. Over the last two years, that one second has become his personal Everest.

The 17-year-old had been striving to improve his time in the 50m backstroke for two years. But no matter how hard he trained, his personal best remained stubbornly at 31 seconds.

Finally, at the Festival of Sport Time Trial this April, Alvin made his long-awaited breakthrough, when he finished the 50m backstroke race in 30 seconds.

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Speaking to Young Post at the 43rd Mantas Invitational Swim Meet on June 8, where he also earned three silver medals, Alvin said the time trial was the most memorable competition of his career so far.

“It was a really big leap for me, even if I was just one second faster. The break gave me the motivation to continue to push through,” he said.

Alvin has been swimming since he was three, but he almost gave up the sport.
Photo: Kelly Ho/SCMP

Alvin has been swimming nearly all his life, and in that time, there have been moments when he has felt pretty alone in his struggles. But his two-year stagnation proved there are people he can share his burden with.

The German Swiss International School student said the help of one friend, who gave him tips on how to improve his stroke when he was experiencing a slump, saved him from walking away from the sport he has been doing since he was three.

“The hardest part of swimming is that it is one of the loneliest sports. At one point, I wanted to quit swimming so badly, but this friend taught me to become a better swimmer,” Alvin said.

Aspiring athletes are well-aware that achieving sporting success always comes with a trade-off. The Year 12 student believes the most important quality of a good swimmer is the willingness to make sacrifices, whether that means giving up precious downtime, or quality time spent with friends and family.

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“You know how other kids go home and quickly finish their work and have hours to play or socialise? Well as a swimmer, you just don’t get that time,” said the teen, who trains six to eight times a week.

And when it comes to forcing himself to wake up for early morning training sessions that most people would balk at, Alvin said knowing that the sessions focus on his weak spots helps to him get out of bed.

“Technique is what I most need to improve on. So sacrificing some bed time for that is totally worth it,” said Alvin.

His hard work paid off. As well as beating his personal best, Alvin was awarded the Outstanding Swimming Training Scholarship from the Hong Kong Swimming Coaches Association last month.

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When asked about his idols in the world of swimming, the teen didn’t reel off a list of Olympians. Instead, he said he looks up to one of the younger swimmers at his school.

“This might be an unusual answer, but it’s Sarah Chu Ting-yan,” Alvin told Young Post. She is a lot of things I aspire to be: she is diligent, very hardworking, just a great role model.” That same day, 14-year-old Sarah smashed four records at the Mantas event.

The school sporting season may be over for now, but Alvin has a jam-packed summer schedule that includes visits to universities in the US and preparations for the city’s largest swimming meet.

“For now, I must bump up my fitness to what it was before the exam period, as the Hong Kong Open is in August, and it’s the biggest competition of the year,” he said.

And his long-term plans? “In five year’s time, I want to be swimming at university, preferably in the US, so I can improve even more with the help of the coaches there.”

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge