Cover Chanel outfit. Chanel Coco Crush earrings, necklace, ring mini version in 18K white gold and diamonds, ring small version in 18K white gold; Eternal N°5 Transformable earrings, necklace in 18K white gold and diamonds; Première Velours Watch in yellow gold and titanium, black rubber with velvet touch, diamond dial. (Photo: Affa Chan)

The world record-holding, double Olympic medallist swimmer and Tatler June cover star on what it took to get to that podium and how much further she wants to go

As Siobhán Haughey walks out for the 200m freestyle final in Tokyo, the camera pans to a cluster of rippling red and white bauhinia flags. Though concealed by a mask, her delight is unmistakable as a small but raucous team of fellow Hong Kong swimmers and their coaches attempt to compensate for an Olympic Games without public spectators. Moments later, as the robotic “on your marks” sounds, she reaches down, adjusts her goggles, and stays steady as the women around her—world champions and previous Olympic medallists among them—twitch with adrenaline.

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Her body slices into the water and she starts strong, each stroke measured and confident in a sea of thrashing limbs. By the second 50m, she is in third place. At 45 seconds in, she is not only leading but swimming ahead of the world record pace. After the second wall kick, she is half a torso ahead of China’s Yang Junxuan; by the third, commentators are already talking about history in the making. But less than ten metres from the final wall, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus pulls ahead. Titmus wins, but Haughey is less than half a second behind, in a clear personal best time. She exits the pool, her hand covering her mouth in something between elation and disbelief, her life forever changed in 1:53.92.

“I knew I would swim well: I don’t get that feeling often, but it happened at the right competition”
Siobhán Haughey

“I touched the wall and I felt relieved,” she says, eight months on. “It was like, this is what I’ve been working on for so long and finally it’s here. I was just like,”—she gives a happy sigh and breaks into the same ear-to-ear smile that lit up television screens around the world last July. She adds, “I knew I would swim well because of all the training and preparation that I did. I don’t get that feeling often, but it happened at the right competition. No one was expecting me to medal—not even me.” After the race, her coach gave her a ringing phone and told her to answer it. “It was my mom and she was crying. She said she’d been watching on TV and was so proud of me,” Haughey says.

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Being the city’s first Olympic swimming finalist was a feat in itself, but winning Hong Kong’s first medal in Olympic swimming certified Haughey as an immediate hero. A second silver two days later in the 100m freestyle cemented her as the city’s most decorated Olympian of all time in its most successful games in history. Roars exploded from malls and public squares as Hongkongers in their thousands flouted the city’s stringent rules around social distancing, as they had done days earlier to celebrate fencer Cheung Ka-long’s extraordinary gold. Mental preparedness was everything, Haughey says. “I went into it with a relaxed mindset and just wanted to have fun. And that’s what I did.”

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But after two decades of honing, strengthening, optimising, striving, sacrificing, dreaming; of 3am alarms; successes superseding setbacks; single-minded determination overcoming self-doubt; what do you do when, overnight, your entire home city learns your name, the MTR Corporation gives you free travel for life, the government holds an open-top bus tour for you, major global brands clamour to sign you as their ambassador, strangers on the street beg for photos and autographs, every child suddenly wants to be a swimmer, every reporter wants to know what you eat, who you date, even whether you really speak Cantonese?

You get back in the pool.

“My main job is being a swimmer,” Haughey says. “Nothing can ever prepare you for fame or popularity. I was just trying to be a good swimmer. I never signed up for the followers, the fame, everything that came with it. It definitely took a little time to get used to.” This mindset carried her through five “crazy” months following Tokyo to the Fina World Swimming Championships in Dubai, where she won gold in both of the same distances, setting a world record in the 200m in the process, the finale to a stratospheric year.

When we meet in mid-April, the 24-year-old is sanguine and relaxed, despite having spent most of the year under lockdown, living and training at the Hong Kong Sports Institute’s (HKSI) facility in Sha Tin in near-quarantine conditions to minimise any risk of contracting Covid-19 as its devastating fifth wave ripped through the city. The following day, she returns to the Middle East for another period of training before travelling to Hungary for the Fina World Championships in June, then to the Asian Games in Hangzhou in September. Last year represented the pinnacle of her achievements so far, but it didn’t mean it was time to take a step back.

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“The Olympics and the world record were some of the best moments in my career. But frankly, I don’t really remember them in my day-to-day life. Like when I’m training, I don’t think ‘two-time silver medal Olympian here’,” she says. “I give myself time to appreciate, acknowledge and celebrate my achievements, but what motivates me is the next goal, the next competition.” She is speaking from a spartan setting at the HKSI, her deep chestnut brown eyes sparkling amid a constellation of freckles. “From February, I was here for almost six weeks, unable to leave and doing the exact same thing every single day. On days I’m not training, I’m still here. Sometimes it’s really hard to keep yourself going.”

What keeps her motivated? “I’m lucky that I love swimming; that passion keeps me motivated. And thinking about what I want to achieve next. And having good people around me: my coaches and teammates.”

“Self-discipline, multitudinous training sessions, muscle cramps, bodily injuries and many, many sacrifices” are what Sherry Tsai, the Hong Kong Olympic swimmer-turned-coach, cites as the recipe to becoming an elite athlete. “The thing I saw the most in my high school days was probably the swimming pool and its tiles,” she said last year, describing the gruelling work it took to get her to three games between 2000 and 2008.

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It’s something Haughey understands well. Born in Hong Kong to a Chinese mother and Irish father, she started swimming aged four and was competing and training at a high level by her teens. She won a scholarship to study psychology at the University of Michigan, where she captained the swimming team in her final year, and consistently strong race results earned her a reputation as one of the programme’s all-time greats. While at university, she qualified for the 2016 Rio Games, where she would become the first Hong Kong swimmer in 64 years to reach the semi-finals. After graduating in 2019, she stayed in Ann Arbor, where the university is located, but pandemic-related facility closures brought her home to Hong Kong in 2020, as she began tailoring her training to Tokyo.

“It was definitely not how I planned my preparation for the Olympics would be,” she says of her training in isolation. “But I think that’s why I got those results.” She and other swimmers, several of whom had also returned from studying abroad, grew close and leant on each other for support. She says, “[Others] don’t see all the people behind you; all the people by your side. My success isn’t all because of me, and it’s important that those who helped me along the way know that they were part of it.”

“My success isn’t all because of me, and it’s important that people who helped me along the way know that they were part of it”
Siobhán Haughey

A decade’s worth of racing has made her measured and articulate when speaking to the press, but she is wary of giving too much of herself away. “Honestly, my least favourite thing is giving interviews, because you say things and [reporters] can take a small part and magnify it. No one really taught me how to give interviews: what to do, what to say. As I got older, I learnt from mistakes. Most of the limited things I read about myself are about my swimming and maybe a bit about my character, which I think is good. That’s just what I want it to be: not about my private life or my friends.”

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During Tokyo, she stopped checking social media, a race-day ritual picked up in Rio to drown out the noise and stay focused. But after her success was safe, she opened Instagram. “I was like, ‘Whoa, what is happening?’ I kept getting messages of support and wanted to make sure people knew I appreciated it, so I spent weeks trying to reply to every message. People around me were telling me to copy and paste ‘thank you’ or just hit ‘like’ but I wanted it to feel genuine. But it turns out that’s not sustainable. It just gave me even more work and probably more stress.”

Wearing a facemask gave her some semblance of anonymity when she returned to Hong Kong. “I don’t get recognised that often. I prefer it that way sometimes, because I’m quite shy. I signed up to be an athlete, and that’s what I know how to do. If you need me to do videos or shoots, or give interviews or speeches, these are things I’m not very good at. I still get anxious when I do those things. But people on the internet are mostly very nice, which definitely helps.”

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Her long-term plans involve going back to studying and becoming a child psychologist. But, just as she looked up to medal-winning athletes like windsurfer Lee Lai-san or cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze, she hopes that her athletic career has a lasting effect on Hong Kong, whether it gives rising swimming stars the fortitude to push that bit harder, or inspires someone who has never swum before to learn a life-saving skill.

“After Hong Kong athletes’ performances in Tokyo and at major competitions these past few years, there will be more of a drive for kids to participate in sport. Our Olympic medallists are mostly female, which will hopefully motivate young girls to find a sport they like,” she says. “I especially want kids to know that they can achieve anything, and just because no one has done it before, doesn’t mean they can’t do it; just because no one from Hong Kong had won an Olympic medal in swimming before, didn’t mean I couldn’t do it.”

Tokyo 2020 will forever be remembered as the year that put Hong Kong on the map of global sport, with Haughey’s achievements a standout moment in the city’s history. Now reaching the top of her game, Haughey has just one rival in her sights: herself. “It doesn’t matter if I’m second or eighth; all that matters is I’m better than last time and I know that I’m moving forward, whether it’s by 0.1 seconds or by one second. I don’t know what that ultimate goal is, but as of right now, I still don’t think I have reached my max.

“I just know I have to keep moving forward.”

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