Making History for Hong Kong: Conversations with DGS Olympians

In summer 2021, Hong Kong celebrated the best results in history at the Tokyo Olympics. DOGA is proud to have eight alumnae spanning Classes of 2009-2020, to represent Hong Kong in swimming, table tennis, badminton, fencing, and golf.

Following the Olympics, the DOGA Editorial Subcommittee had the opportunity to sit down with four of our DGS Olympic athletes, who shared their fond memories at DGS and DGJS, their journeys to professional sports and unforgettable experiences at the Olympics, as well as personal reflections and words of wisdom for those coming after them.

Despite the uncertainties and stresses posed by COVID-19, which included the yearlong postponement of the Tokyo games, in addition to lockdowns and disruptions along the way, DGS Olympic athletes found new and effective approaches to continue training. What they share is perseverance, self-discipline, and wholehearted dedication to achieving their biggest dream of competing at the Olympics. They also hope that the Hong Kong team will achieve new milestones in the future. All Olympians emphasised the importance of both individual preparation, as well as teamwork and much-needed support from coaches, family, and friends. The old girls also share a sense of gratitude towards DGS, for the support they received from the school, teachers, and classmates in striking what was often a challenging balance between sports, academics, and personal interests.

Minnie Soo

"I was too short to see the top of the table but loved the sound of the ball!" joked Olympic women's table tennis bronze medalist Minnie Soo (Class of 2016), as she reminisced about the beginning of her table tennis journey as a child. With her father as coach, Minnie started playing when she was 3.5 years old, and over time, was captivated by the mental and physical rigours of the game. At DGJS, in spite of her busy training schedule, Minnie was able to find time for her multiple interests, including percussion, choir, solo singing, and art. She fondly recalled the supportive teachers, especially Mrs. Christina Chiang who encouraged her and ensured that she would not miss out on the opportunity to sing in the choir, despite her commitments to table tennis. Minnie treasures the lifelong friendships formed at DGS, and the learning environment, which encouraged critical thinking and the pursuit of different interests. In particular, her love of books, cultivated at DGS, helped her reach a breakthrough in her mental game, after reading the biographies about top athletes in different sports.

Painting is one of Minnie's favourite hobbies
Minnie and sister Queenie at Hang Seng All Schools Championships 2012

As an elite athlete, she learned that enjoying the process and fighting for herself was a far greater motivator than meeting the expectations of others. This lesson particularly empowered Minnie in her Tokyo Olympics experience. In April 2020, after sustaining an injury to her arm, Minnie was determined to make it to the Olympic Village. Despite the physical and emotional challenges, she persevered. As Minnie overcame the pressure to meet others' expectations, she was able to enjoy the competition process. She considers her medal-winning table tennis match the most enjoyable one in her life. "I did not have any expectations and just fought hard for myself," said Minnie.

Women's team table tennis bronze medal match
Olympic bronze medalist Minnie Soo

In her path to success, Minnie has had to pause full-time studies in order to commit fully to table tennis training. She is grateful for Mrs. Lau's support and guidance in helping her to weigh her options, and considers her sacrifices for the sport that she loves worthwhile. Even when she was not at school every day, she never gave up learning. The love of books and love of learning instilled in her at DGS have provided a foundation throughout these years as she studied with tutors and looks to return to formal academic studies in the future. Minnie enjoys physics and talks about it with as much enthusiasm as she does with table tennis. "Physics gives me a new pair of eyes to see the world. We see very little, and we know very little," Minnie said. While seemingly different, Minnie observes that both playing table tennis and studying physics require open-mindedness, in order to understand what at first may seem impossible. "We cannot control the results, but we can control our attitude," she explained. Finally, Minnie encourages others not to fear failure, as conquering fear is crucial to enjoying the competitive process. "Once you overcome your fear, positive results will naturally follow."

Coco Lin

Coco Lin's (Class of 2013) fencing career started serendipitously. When Coco was in Primary 5, her dad asked her to try out fencing with her cousin's used fencing gear. Coco started with foil, which she initially did not enjoy, but later when she switched to épée, she found this discipline easier because of the simpler rules.

After just over one year of lessons, Coco surprised herself and her coach by placing third in an interschool individual competition. Her coach saw her potential and she also increasingly enjoyed training with teammates who motivated her to continue pursuing the sport. Coco joined the Hong Kong junior team in S4. Regular trainings were manageable, but travelling for 1-2 weeks at a time for overseas competitions made catching up with schoolwork during downtime and after competitions more challenging. At university, Coco continued to balance her studies in landscape architecture and fencing, but it was taxing at times.

Coco's first individual medal in an international competition

Despite the glamour, Coco's biggest struggle was constantly doubting her own potential, because she had only mostly won accolades as part of a team, which she felt was not ideal for an individual sport. She dared not dream big and wanted to give up many times. Finally, in Year 3 of university, Coco won an individual champion at the under 23 Asian Championships, which solidified her belief that she could do well individually after all. Another big challenge Coco faced was watching her DGS friends move on with their lives and progress in their careers, while she was still following her "juvenile interests". Ultimately, all these struggles were all worthwhile, especially after gaining the rare experience to go to the Olympics. Standing on the highest international sports platform encouraged her to remain an athlete and aim higher for individual breakthroughs.

Action photo from World Cup in Chengdu, China

Covid-19 affected the consistency and quality of Coco's training. When Hong Kong Sports Institute was in lockdown mode, she trained with weights at home. The biggest impact of the Covid-19 pandemic to Coco was not only disruption to her training during Hong Kong Sports Institute's closure, but the loss of touch with international players through overseas trainings and competitions. Something significantly positive, however, also came out of the pandemic: the chance for the Hong Kong women's epee team to qualify for the Olympics for the first time. The most memorable moment at the Tokyo Olympics was watching Edgar Cheung Ka Long win his Olympic gold. Coco and her team went hysterical the moment he won! Coco thinks that the Hong Kong team and fencing in particular achieved amazing results this time partly because with Covid-19 under control in Hong Kong, training resumed earlier than in other countries. Also, a lot more resources such as world-class coaches and scientific research were invested into systematising the sport. It was prime harvest time for Hong Kong fencing.

At Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

Having an impressive eight alumnae on the Olympics team is a testament to DGS' support on sports development. Coco was very grateful that DGS encouraged the girls to not give up when overcoming challenges, but more importantly, it fostered their all-round development. This kind of support enabled her to become the athlete she is today. As a full-time athlete, she will continue to train for the Paris Olympics, after which she may retire and enter the sustainability field.

The DGS days were memorable to Coco because she experienced all three campuses: the old, the temporary (in Sham Shui Po), and the new. The Sham Shui Po campus felt like a more tight-knit community due to the physical layout of the school. Coco also fondly remembered the girls having to bring down their $8 stools to assembly and then hanging them next to their desks afterwards every day.

Coco won silver medal at interschool fencing competition in S2

Coco's advice for young athletes is to try more things and take the time to find their passion; once it's found, they need to have clear goals and pursue them wholeheartedly, but also understand that there will be sacrifices along the way. Having put a high priority on fencing, Coco lost a lot of play time as a child, the chance to do other activities, and even family gathering time. So, prioritising, trusting oneself and having a strong will to fend off distractions are key to success.

Karen Tam

Olympic swimmer Karen Tam (Class of 2016) began her swimming journey at a young age. "I was not afraid of water. My love of water made me want to jump into a pool whenever I saw one," said Karen. She started swimming at age four and joined the Hong Kong swim team at age 12. She recalled having a packed routine starting with swim training at 5:30 a.m. every day. During secondary school at DGS, Karen found herself juggling swim training and academics, but felt thankful for the support she received from teachers who provided guidance outside class and classmates who shared notes with her for classes she had to miss due to her swimming commitments. To this day, she remains close to her swimming team friends from DGS. Reflecting on what she learned during interschool swimming competitions, Karen said, "It is essential to manage stress and also care about others on the team besides yourself."

Grand Slam for DGS in Karen's final year
The moment before Karen dived into the pool for her first Olympic race

Karen became a full-time swimmer in May 2021 after finishing her studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada. While at UBC, she continued to balance her studies and swimming. She and her teammates would all catch up on academics while traveling to training or competitions. Even though it was hard work, "it is worth it—not everyone can have a dream come true." Karen's participation in the Tokyo Olympics was a big dream come true. The postponement of the Olympics for one year meant that Karen was able to finish university before returning to Hong Kong for training. Her relay team was able to train for an extra year and achieve faster qualifying times. Facing the uncertainty of whether the Olympics would be held, Karen again encountered stress, but learned the importance of self-discipline and the need to trust the training process. Echoing her past experience in the DGS swimming team, being a good teammate proved to be important as she cheered others on at other events following the completion of the 4x100m freestyle relay race.

Last day at Tokyo 2020 Olympic pool

Currently, Karen continues to work towards her future goals in both swimming, such as preparing for the World Championships, and academics, with the ambition of being a physiotherapist and working in the healthcare field. "As long as you put in the effort, you will get results," said Karen. She feels that staying positive and trusting the process are very important. Even amidst uncertain and stressful circumstances, she finds that doing what she thinks is right and truly enjoying it is key. Indeed, these are lessons learned early in life in her relationship with water—not being afraid, and loving it.

Toto Wong

Do you know anyone who learned all four swimming strokes just by imitation? Starting at the age of three, Toto Wong (Class of 2017) mimicked her older sister's swimming strokes and learned all four on her own eventually. Seeing such talent, and also for good health, Toto's parents encouraged her to continue with swimming. She started receiving proper coaching at Primary 4.

Toto loves training outdoors

However, Toto's true passion was ballet. Ironically, she "hated" swimming and would cry whenever she was asked to train with her sister. Toto balanced ballet and swimming until her early teenage years when schedules conflicted and her physique could no longer support both. She made the difficult decision to give up ballet because she felt that with hard work, there was a higher chance of success at swimming than ballet, which is a more subjective performing art form.

But the real motivation to focus on swimming came from the bells and whistles of the sport. Toto had long admired the new sets of uniforms, beautiful pictures and new friendships her older fellow trainees brought back from overseas competitions. This motivated her to enjoy swimming. Being in the water was her way of meditation amidst the stress of daily life. Toto chose to focus on backstroke because it is a unique stroke where she could feel the freedom of looking up at the sky. In S3, Toto joined the DGS family where swimming is valued and healthy competition is encouraged, and in S5, she joined the Hong Kong team. "DGS's healthy competitive spirit made me want to excel in everything," said Toto.

Toto was asked to compete in interschool swimming A grade relay when she was 13
The swim team hoped to build a taller pyramid each year

The path to the Tokyo Olympics was uncertain. When Covid-19 broke out, Toto packed her bags in Australia, where she was taking a gap year to train, and came back to Hong Kong hastily. With an immense amount of self-regulation, Toto trained, albeit a bit inconsistently and without a coach, with workouts at home and swimming in the open sea, under her own schedule until spring 2021 when the Hong Kong Sports Institute reopened. It was not until a month before the Olympics that she found out she was chosen to represent Hong Kong. At the Olympics, the quietness of having no spectators calmed her and allowed her to "get into her zone" more quickly, especially when swimming the first leg of the relay, which was rather nerve-racking.

Toto believes that the increased opportunities for athletes to go abroad for competitions and trainings to gain international exposure played a significant role in the stellar results achieved by Team Hong Kong at the Tokyo Olympics. This achievement will be a big booster to rising athletes and proves that this small city can have a place on the podium as well!

The 4x100m Hong Kong Medley relay team at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

In her journey to become a star swimmer, other than ballet, which Toto might have pursued as an alternative path, Toto did not have to give up much else in her life. Perhaps this is due to her high ambitions. One time, after she tore her tendon from playing dodgeball, Toto continued swim training with a waterproof cast in the water. As a full-time athlete, Toto is also studying optometry at Polytechnic University and is hoping to become an optometrist one day when she retires from swimming. It is not easy juggling both, but her desire to do well in everything takes over.

Lastly, Toto wanted to leave a piece of advice for DGS girls, "As long as you put your mind to something and prioritise it, you will find the time to do it. DGS is great and gives you a lot of freedom, but that also calls for self-discipline; you need to be clear about what you want to do." This mentality moulded Toto into who she is today.

 

Caitlin Chiu
Class of 2022

 

Student

 

 

 

 

I am Caitlin Chiu, a graduate of DGJS and a current student of a boarding school in Kent, UK. Recently, the coronavirus has been an increasing worry and an arising issue around the world which has brought a time of grief, uncertainty and stress to many.

The outbreak first broke out while I was studying in the UK. Back then, I didn't think much of it as I never thought that it was going to affect me. No one was prepared for the worst yet to come. In February, I was told that I was not going to be able to return to Hong Kong during the half term. Feeling quite bewildered and in awe of how serious the virus has become, it dawned on me the amount of damage it had already caused to Hong Kong and China. After the half term, things escalated quicker than anyone would've thought. The virus spread rapidly and maliciously to Europe, including the UK, and I was told that I was going to fly back to Hong Kong two weeks before the end of term.

Although this virus has caused me inconvenience, it has taught me precious life lessons. Firstly, I realised that preparation is crucial. Throughout life, you will be presented with various challenges and uncertain circumstances that you can't possibly prepare for. The virus is a perfect example of this. Who would have thought that this could affect so many people? Furthermore, as I have always loved animals and nature, I have learnt that I should put more effort into protecting them, as maybe next time, we could be seriously affected by a natural disaster, such as climate change. The powers of nature are way beyond our control. We should always prepare for the worst and do what is in our power to stop disasters from happening.

Secondly, I have learnt that life is very fragile. It is important that we treasure our loved ones when we are with them, as we will never know when we will lose them. Don't take any day for granted. I was so thankful and relieved when I finally arrived in Hong Kong and was reunited with my family. I felt that I was home and whenever I return home, I feel safe with my family beside me because we are stronger together. And here, I have to give my heartful thanks to the school team at my boarding school, who made a considerate decision to allow overseas girls to return home at the earliest possible date, allowing my family and I to be reunited during this difficult time.

My deepest sympathies go out to families who have lost their loved ones, and I pray for a speedy recovery for those who are battling the virus. Together, we will be strong, and we will win this battle. Below is the link to a song that I've written. I hope that this song 'Fighters' that I have written can provide support and encouragement to those in need.

   


Nancy Chow
Class of 1990

 

Social Worker

 

As a social worker, I have observed that COVID-19 has not only brought about a health and economic crisis for Hong Kong and the world, but also a social crisis which struck at the core of our society.

Family relationships have been severely tested by policies designed to contain the pandemic, with the collateral effect of shutting down community support services. The suspension of schools, day-care services for the needy, the elderlies and the disabled created additional burdens and presented enormous challenges, tremendous stress and frustration to family members and caregivers alike. Although the requirements of social distancing and work-from-home arrangements has allowed family members to stay at home longer, it has also increased the chance of familial conflicts. You may have read from the news about couples arguing over whether they should go out or stay at home, whether they should be wearing masks, or how they should use diluted household bleach etc. In addition, parents are involved in more fights with their children over homework and the use of electronic devices. During the pandemic, social workers like myself have also been challenged to make use of video communication to maintain contacts with clients, in order to observe the need for social distancing. As there are no physical visits, there is a need to heighten our awareness of the stress and needs of our clients in these complicated times.

COVID-19 has affected people from all walks of life, in particular the less privileged and vulnerable groups. At the outbreak of the pandemic, you may recall on social media, a story about an elderly man crying in front of a reporter, and expressing his desperation for a mask. This shows that for people with the least resources, they usually have limited access to information as well as the weakest coping abilities, making them more vulnerable to the dangers of the coronavirus. The situation is worsened by the requirement of social distancing, which leaves the elderlies, disabled, underprivileged and ethnic minorities most impacted by isolation.

To ease the plight of those hardest hit by the pandemic, the government has duly responded by granting different kinds of subsidies to ease imminent financial needs. I believe that society will benefit from more social measures or policies directed at restoring and strengthening the coping ability of these vulnerable groups. In the long run, this will also help to reduce the inequality gap and social injustices caused by the pandemic.

COVID-19 pandemic has brought misery to many, but it has also alerted us to look for ways to review inter-personal relationships, including how to deal with family situations and examine the effectiveness of Hong Kong's social safety net system. We should focus more on taking preventative actions so that we are better equipped to deal with another crisis should this happen in the future.

   


 

Robyn Lamsam
Class of 1994

 

Professional Emcee, Motivational Speaker and Philanthropist

 

Marooned in Krabi

In a blink of an eye, six days in Thailand is fast approaching six months. We came to our home in Krabi for a short holiday at the end January, but as a result of Thailand's national lockdown, we are now marooned here until the country reopens at the end of June.

In the beginning, "doing nothing" took a bit of getting used to. Life in Hong Kong is frenetic, schedules are packed with social engagements and activities, things to do and people to see. In Krabi, the imposition of prohibited areas and checkpoints between villages arising from the lockdown meant that our freedom of movement was severely restricted. It was truly heart-breaking to be away from our family and friends in Hong Kong – especially not knowing when we could see my mother, to whom we are very close. Along the way when we received news that Thailand's reopening was delayed again and again, it was both upsetting and frustrating. Part of the solution was a change in mindset – a conscious decision to simply focus on the present and to deliberately put a positive spin on things that were within my control, rather than to obsess about things that were completely out of my control. Quite frankly that took a great deal of effort for a renowned control freak like myself, but once we put our minds to it, we settled into a calmer routine.

We are very grateful that at our home here in Krabi, we have access to swimming pools, gardens and beaches. Every day affords my 4-year-old son, Kyle, the opportunity to experience a living naturalist lesson, and he is fast developing into a mini David Attenborough. On land we have been chasing millipedes, monitor lizards and kingfishers; at low tide we get up close and personal with a wide variety of aquatic life, from giant hermit crabs to giant clams to sea slugs and starfish.

As a precaution against giving myself a coronary in the process of home-schooling, I also enrolled Kyle at a local kindergarten. Although schools in Thailand were officially closed by March, I made special arrangements to continue private lessons at the school because as much as I adore my child, those three hours of peace and quiet every morning have been marvellous for my own sanity! Kyle in turn has really taken to the Thai language – whilst he can only speak all of three words in Cantonese, in three short months he has already learned to read and write all 44 letters of the Thai alphabet, knows all the days of the week, numbers, shapes and colours. In turn, he has started teaching his mother and grandmother the language – often becoming quite irritated when we pronounce words incorrectly. Something he picked up from mummy's home-schooling technique perhaps? (Haha)

Is this an ideal situation we are in? Of course not.
Do we miss our friends and family? Of course, we do.
Our new normal is anything but normal.
So I am choosing to be happy. I am choosing to adapt. I am choosing to be present and optimistic.

Gratitude is a state of mind.

   

 
      

 

 

Janet Pau
Class of 1994

 

Economist and Director at The Economist Group

 

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, I had been writing about the adverse effects of climate change on public health challenges. As a densely populated city and an international travel and trade hub, Hong Kong has always been subject to a heightened risk of infectious disease spread. In southern China, extreme heat waves and increased flooding brought about by global warming foster environments susceptible to infectious diseases that are vector-borne, by hosts such as mosquitoes and ticks. At the same time, continued urban sprawl means humans are encroaching upon animal habitats. The mixing of animals and humans create the risk of zoonotic diseases, meaning viruses, bacteria, and parasites originating in animals that jump to humans.

Covid-19 is the pandemic that health researchers have been warning about for years. World Health Organization scientists in 2018 had warned about Disease X - their name for an as-yet-unknown disease, possibly zoonotic in nature, which could become the next epidemic. Covid-19 turned out to be one of these diseases-in-waiting. And Covid-19 may not be the last pandemic we face in our lifetimes. In the coming decades, climate change will likely accelerate the migration and dislocation of both humans and animals, exacerbating disease formation and spread. Better preparedness and detection will be essential combating pandemics. Beyond public-sector investments, which tend to favour low-risk and cost-effective solutions, notably vaccines, the private sector may have the opportunity to lead the way in investing in disruptive technological innovations. These could include artificial intelligence tools to disrupt the conventional process of disease-trend forecasting. For example, machine learning can be used to search for hidden patterns in environmental factors and traits of animal species that predict pathogen carriers with greater accuracy. Sustainable investment schemes can be designed to finance pandemic preparedness. Urban planners also need to better balance development goals with the longer-term preservation of wildlife habitats.

As Covid-19 has so forcefully shown, pandemics are an "uncertain certainty" that will lead to serious health, economic and social costs. They must be seen not in isolation but together with other global challenges, notably climate change. Hong Kong should now take its hard-earned success in largely halting the spread of Covid-19 to prove itself as a role model in the area of pandemic preparedness and public health.


Previous articles on public health and climate change authored by Janet Pau for further reading:
- Build up climate change resilience in the Bay Area
- Hong Kong can make itself a role model in preparing for pandemics
- Steps needed to cool down heat-stressed cities in Asia