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.
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.”