Cover Au wears a Chanel swimsuit (Photo: Affa Chan)

After Hong Kong’s most successful year ever at the Olympic Games, swimmer Stephanie Au reflects on her sporting career, and the legacy she wants to leave for the next generation of athletes

The sun is bright but the water is cold on the late November afternoon of Stephanie Au Hoi-shun’s Tatler cover shoot. Nevertheless, she is upbeat and relaxed as she gamely gets in and out of the pool and swaps between one-piece swimsuits and high-fashion looks. There couldn’t be a better metaphor for Au’s career—transforming from athlete to model at the drop of a hat, having learnt to navigate the notoriously high-stakes worlds of both fashion and sport with grace and good humour. If she is gritting her teeth, there’s no sign of it.

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Later, she sits on a rooftop, her legs clad in thigh-high Chanel boots and crossed beneath her, warming up in an oversized pink woolly cardigan. Around her neck is a heart-shaped Chanel choker, and she wears a fleecy lilac hat. Her damp hair hangs in waves around her face, which frequently breaks into wide smiles. She speaks softly yet precisely with both sportsmanlike diplomacy and childish wonder when discussing her past year.

At an Olympic Games that was remarkable, not least for its year-long postponement, Hong Kong sent its largest ever cohort of athletes, most of whom were women, and brought back more medals than all other Olympic appearances combined. While the attention centred on Au’s teammate Siobhán Haughey, whose double silver made swimming the city’s most successful sport in Tokyo, Au wrote herself into the history books by becoming Hong Kong’s only four-time Olympic athlete, competing in the 100m backstroke and 100m freestyle relay.

“I don’t even know how to put it into words,” she says. “This year was the culmination of the efforts of previous Hong Kong athletes of the past 20 years to achieve something this incredible together. It takes a village to make that happen.”

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At 29, Au is the oldest swimmer on the team and much of the media conversation post-Olympics focused on her retirement. The same invisible hourglass hangs over her career in fashion and entertainment: she has multiple luxury brands on her CV and has dabbled in acting. “When I was 26, I was told that was too old to become an actress,” she says. “But I’ve been doing the same thing since I was nine, so I still feel like I’m nine sometimes.”

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Au’s start in swimming stemmed from her father joking that he would save her mother if the two were drowning. At nine, Au took to the water like a fish, and was soon training five times a week. She broke her first Hong Kong record aged 13 and has set more than a dozen since. She made her Olympic debut aged 16 at Beijing 2008, but only after she was flagbearer at the 2016 Rio Games did she became a household name: she had modelled before Rio, but the spotlight brought higher profile castings and launched her into unfamiliar surroundings.

“Sport is: wake up, eat, train, sleep. It’s simple. The fashion industry is the opposite: everything has a value. People talk differently; they’re always criticising,” she says. “I couldn’t unsee those things, so I brought them back to the pool. I don’t see swimming the same way I used to. I started to ask, ‘What can I get out of swimming?’” She takes a deep breath and her voice goes low. “It got complicated. I didn’t realise that there would be a backlash to me modelling.”

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As in sport, the world of fashion requires a thick skin, and athletes, like models, face scrutiny around their bodies. However, Au hadn’t prepared for how different life would be after she started putting herself into the public realm, and the effect it would have on her mental state. Having never been body-conscious before, she suddenly became aware that her muscular physique was at odds with the city’s narrow beauty ideals. “In Hong Kong, I’m bigger than other girls. I’m tall, have broad shoulders and look big. I didn’t think I looked good even when people kept telling me I did. It took me three years to accept that [my shoulders are] actually my forte.”

Rather than celebrate the fact that an athlete was occupying a space in fashion, local media and online commenters were acerbic, framing Au’s burgeoning modelling career as her only looking out for herself. “I guess I didn’t do it in the perfect way. I thought I was campaigning for athletes, but I guess it didn’t look like I was,” she said last year.

In reality, Au and her teammates take care to show the shared ownership of their success. A video posted to Au’s Instagram page during the Olympics shows the team mobbing Haughey as she emerges into the athletes’ area, captioned “We stand as one”, and Haughey posted, “We did it”. Au has become a role model for young women and a champion of mental health and gender equality. She uses her visibility as a conduit not only for promoting fitness among girls, but also opening dialogues with her young fans, soliciting mental health-related stories from followers.

The Haughey effect is real. Au’s coach Zhang Diyong saw a boom in interest in swimming after the Olympics, reporting that his club had taken on 100 new students, some as young as four, within a month of the Games. Au believes that continuing the momentum from Tokyo will not only involve the public’s continued interest in sport, but the reshaping of how sport is managed in Hong Kong, based on her own struggles.

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Her swimming prowess won her a scholarship to study environmental economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where she got her first taste of life outside Hong Kong. “I had a hard time,” she says. “It was mostly homesickness. I’m not really into American culture. I had no friends; I felt I was dumped somewhere unfamiliar without the skillset to cope. I was struggling, in survival mode, and getting yelled at by my coach, because I wasn’t swimming well.”

She emphasises each word: “It was rock-bottom bad.”

So she dug deep. “It just couldn’t get worse, so I guess that’s how it got better,” she says. “The funny thing was that I never thought about coming home. I guess it was the sportsman in me: I didn’t want to give up, no matter how hard it was going to be.”

Au trained under Teri McKeever, one of the most successful swimming coaches of all time, whose strict athletic rigour is infused with a holistic approach. Au and her teammates attended team-building retreats, and would draw cards bearing inspirational messages to set their intentions before training. “I want to help young women be the best version of themselves,” McKeever said in 2018. “I don’t want them to set limits on who they can be and what they can achieve.”

Upon returning to Hong Kong, Au felt frustrated that the progressive coaching methods she had grown accustomed to hadn’t followed her home, especially when it came to mental health. “We see sport through a different lens,” she says, referring to peers who also studied in the West. Does she think there are mental health problems in Hong Kong sport? “I don’t think it is even being talked about yet. Coaches would say you’re not strong enough. And athletes would believe it.”

The Hong Kong Sports Institute offers psychological support for elite athletes through its Sport Psychology Centre. “The aim of the centre is to develop a cutting-edge applied sport psychology service system with a comprehensive and holistic perspective of performance enhancement and all-around development of athletes,” the organisation says. However, Au criticises its approach for being too performance-oriented and diagnostic. “People don’t go because it’s taboo,” she says.

“Give [athletes] what they need,” she continues, addressing the official body. “Give them resources, someone to talk to. It’s hard to quantify how much of performance is mental and how much is physical. Seeing a kid feeling unwanted after losing is so disheartening. That’s something that you can help with.”

She cuts off and holds up her phone in my direction: “I’m sorry; the sunset behind you is just so beautiful.”

Mental health dominated the global conversation around the Games after gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka both pulled out of competitions due to the extreme pressure they faced. Global media was torn between celebrating the pair for bringing mental health in sport into the spotlight and branding them “snowflakes” who couldn’t take the heat. “Physical health is mental health,” Biles said. To Au, they were “true influencers”.

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In preparation for her transition out of elite sport, Au wants to create a platform to promote mental health among athletes. In August, she livestreamed her conversation with track cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze, who became the only Hong Kong athlete with medals from multiple Olympics after winning bronze in the sprint event in Tokyo, as the two discussed mental health in sport. Haughey has also spoken about the challenges of consistently performing at a high level. “I definitely have days where I’m too tired to go to the pool or don’t feel like training. It’s important to surround yourself with positive people who cheer you on and support you. I’m glad I have teammates who will always be there for me no matter what,” she said.

Au says sport is about more than striving for victory. “It’s not just about the result or the time; it’s about what the sport brings you: it gives confidence, it allows kids a safe haven. When I was stressed at school, swimming was an escape. When I’m struggling or having a hard time questioning what I’m doing in life, I jump into the pool and feel like myself again.”

Rather than wait for any official backing, Au and her teammates plan to go it alone. “We want to start talking, start the conversation and campaign for it. We’ve decided that it’s just easiest if we speak from our experience and through ourselves. That’s the best way to use our platform and identity.”

Is she considering a fifth Olympics? She bursts out laughing and exclaims, “I’ll tell you no, for now.” But retiring isn’t an imminent concern. This year, she will spend three months in Australia training with backstroke gold medallist Kaylee McKeown before September’s Asian Games. In tough times, she’ll draw from the scenes from last summer, of crowds cheering Hong Kong athletes from giant screens in malls and people stopping work to watch the live broadcast together in their offices, signalling a city that learnt to love sport overnight. “Sport is something that can unify people in the most simple way,” Au says. “I feel like Hong Kong needed that.”

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