Like many Star Wars fans, Lau Yee-hang had dreamed of crossing swords in a gripping lightsaber duel. While he might not be a Jedi, the Hong Kong teenage fencer has made his dream a reality, except with an epee in his hand, rather than a glowing sword.
The year of 2019 has been a fruitful one for the 17-year-old, who currently ranks no. 4 in junior men’s epee in Hong Kong. Yee-hang lifted his maiden local junior title at the Junior Fencing Championships in July, followed by a third place finish at the President’s Cup Fencing Championships in Hong Kong in August, which marked the very first time the teenager reached the top four in a local senior competition.
What made that tournament even more memorable was the fact that Yee-hang stood next to his coach on the podium. The teen fencer describes the moment as “shocking”, as he did not expect to measure up to his coach, Hong Kong national team fencer Clarence Lai Ka-tsun, in a competition.
“He [Lai] told me he was insanely proud of me,” Yee-hang recalled.
On top of being a milestone in Yee-hang’s eight years of fencing, the bronze medal at the senior open championship was also proof that he was becoming more independent and decisive on the piste.
Yee-hang explained that during the elimination round, there is a one-minute break in between the three bouts in each match, a time that coaches usually use to give instructions to fencers.
But because his coach had to compete as well, Yee-hang could only rely on his own judgement. He said that during that one minute, he’d think about all the touches he had lost and how he got outplayed by his opponent, and devise a new game plan on the spot.
“Fencing is a thought-provoking sport. You’re always changing and adapting to the unique style of your opponent, it’s like real-life chess,” the epee fencer said.
Yee-hang went on to describe his style of fencing as a mix of attack and defence. The fencer said he uses his footwork to maintain a good distance throughout the match and uses his “explosive capability” to draw his opponents into his attack range to catch them off guard. His ability to launch sudden attacks was also the reason why his coach suggested he change from foil – another weapon in fencing which Yee-hang was not fast enough for – to epee.
Yee-hang’s coach had indeed made the right call – the teenager not only succeeded in local competitions, he also delivered a remarkable performance in his debut on the cadet world stage at the World Junior and Cadet Fencing Championships in Verona, Italy, in April 2018.
“I had no expectations going in, but I finished in the top 32, for me that was very good already. I could have gone further, but I did not handle the top 16 match well,” said Yee-hang.
The Sha Tin College student lost to Egyptian fencer Mohamed Elsayed, 12-15, and eventually placed 22nd out of 152 contestants. It was a match he would not forget, because if he had won, he would have competed alongside his school’s star fencer Kaylin Hsieh Sin-yan in the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“It was this competition that showed me the most challenging aspect of the sport, which is coping with your own failure. I know I need to face my mistakes, before thinking about winning,” said Yee-hang.
Another obstacle he had to overcome was struggling to keep up when he was troubled by a double injury in his knee and thigh. He was advised to put his blade down for two months, which sounded terrifying to the fencer, as he feared he’d be treading water while his teammates made significant improvements.
Still, the Year 13 student slowly saw the upside of his forced break, where he could unwind and reconnect with his school friends, whom he barely has time to socialise with during his regular training schedule of 15 hours a week.
“When I resumed my training, I actually did better than I expected. It’s because I became less tense, so I could fence to the best of my ability,” he said.
After making several breakthroughs in the past few months, Yee-hang is raring to go. He will represent the city in the Asian Junior and Cadet Fencing Championships in Indonesia in March, where he hopes to parry his way to the quarter-finals in the junior men’s epee event.
In five year’s time, the junior fencer hopes to take part in the senior events, such as the World Cup and Grand Prix. He believes the aspiration to attend these prestigious events is what fuels him to train hard, but nothing drives him forward more than his true passion for fencing.
“You have to love your sport, otherwise you’ll find yourself questioning why you’re doing this all the time, because you don’t have that drive and motivation.”