Hong Kong’s favourite Olympian Stephanie Au talks swimming and acting
April 3, 2018
Stephanie Au and I first met when we were both teenagers – she was the aspiring new talent on the block with oodles of potential, already breaking local age-group records and making her way through the ranks with ease. I, on the other hand, struggled to make it into finals and was already considering retiring at the age of 15 to focus on my studies (the bitter reality for many student-athletes in Hong Kong).
Au is among the rare ones who excelled at both. A graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, she qualified for the Olympics three times in a row and gained rapid recognition when she became a flag-bearer for Hong Kong at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. When we sat down for a chat last month, I discovered she’s come a long way, but as ever, she’s excelling at everything she does. We reminisce a little, then dive straight into the deep end to talk a career in sports, the entertainment industry and more.
You started training at nine, but your passion for swimming didn’t really pick up until university. Why?
In the past, to a certain extent, it almost felt like you were forced to train because of how the school system was and because of family expectations. So I didn’t have much of an opinion back then. I only fell in love with swimming when I went to university. It wasn’t until then that I had to make a decision – and I chose to go to the United States.
There, the coach had a whole new method of teaching that allowed me to relearn everything I knew. I discovered it wasn’t just about training in the pool; we had land training and other exercises. I was learning to become an athlete – and not just a swimmer. It became much more fun after that.
Before university, did you ever think this would become a full-time career?
Absolutely not! I think even when you and I trained together, we only ever thought we’d be competing until we graduated from high school. I didn’t think I would still be swimming after university. But when university graduation came around and my friends started to look for jobs, I knew there was still room for me to improve in terms of swimming. And that’s when I started asking everyone for their opinion. I was worried I was making the wrong decision. But people told me, “You have the talent. Don’t waste it. Jobs will always be around, school will always be around, but the time to be an athlete is now.” So that’s how I decided.
You came back to Hong Kong afterwards though – how come?
I didn’t like being in the States! [laughs]
When you were studying, you deliberately chose not to study anything related to sports.
That’s correct. For me, keeping swimming and studying separate helped me maintain a balance. So much of my life already revolved around swimming and all my friends were swimmers; I didn’t want to have to face that in my studies as well. In the end, I chose to study environmental economics. I think it’s only now, having made it a full-time career, that I’m thinking I probably should have taken some classes on sports studies. [laughs] There’s still time though – maybe I’ll go back to studying.
Have you ever thought about giving up?
Not really – not even when I was young. Even when it got really tough, even when my coach yelled at me, I never felt like giving up. I think for me, I never wanted to give up because I would have felt like such a loser, especially having gone to the States and telling people I wanted to make a career out of it. It was probably just after the Olympics when there was a time I questioned if I actually could go on. It felt like I was the only one on this path. There wasn’t anyone else I knew who chose to keep on swimming like I did. That’s when I started doubting myself and if I had picked the wrong career.
The only other Hong Kong swimmer I know of who’s done the same is Sze Hang-yu.
That’s right – and I’m so glad she’s still around. If she quits, I’ll be the oldest one in the training pool in Hong Kong!
I think the support system for athletics is much better today than it was before. Look at the new Sports Institute in Fo Tan…
It sure is better today – a lot better. It’s funny, when we were younger, the sports reporters who came to interview us after a race usually reported the event a day or two after it happened. Everyone used to ask the same old questions. But these days, everything is immediate. Reporters are working so much harder to get exclusive access and all that. Even from the media perspective, you can see how things have changed. Athletes today are valued more than before.
You’ve been to the Olympics three times now. Are you thinking of a fourth?
[chuckles] I want to – I really do. The 2020 Olympics are in Tokyo and I want to go to Japan for a great sporting event like this. If I have the ability then, in two years’ time, I want to compete. But I can’t say now. I’ll see what my results are like at this year’s Asian Games first.
But it’s looking good, right?
I think so. I got pretty good results at the Short Course Swimming Championships and won the individual champion award. But, you remember when we were younger and we used to sign up for six individual races? I haven’t done that in so long – not since those days. I had four relays as well, so I ended up competing in 10 races over the course of two days. Can you imagine? It killed me.
You’re a role model now, advocating for gender equality and on mental health issues. Do you find you have to voice out about things you care about more than before?
I don’t think it’s necessary that I do, but I learned so much during my time in the States. My coach there was the first female coach to take the American team to the Olympics. And in America, gender equality was such a strong issue, so that really affected me. On mental wellness, it was the same. My coach was bipolar, so she really understood the need to take care of us and train us, both physically and mentally.
Once you reach a certain calibre as an athlete, it’s not just about your physical capabilities anymore. Your mental capabilities are just as important. When I came back to Hong Kong and I had the opportunity to speak on these issues, I was happy to do it. Especially on mental health – Hong Kong is still a little green on that front. I do think, especially with where I am now, it’s part of my responsibility to help push Hong Kong in the right direction.
When we were younger, we both balanced intensive training and school. These days, you still have to balance work and training. What do you think is the key to excelling at both?
I think I’m the kind of person who likes to test my own limits. I will actually keep on going until I break down, and then I’ll say, “Oh no, I shouldn’t have done that.” It’s a lot of trial and error, I think. I’d like to say I learn from my mistakes. As an athlete, you’ll try not to push yourself too hard right before a big race and you have a set routine. I think prioritising your time well also helps. If I wasn’t preparing for a big race, I’d say try anything, try everything!
What other sports do you practice apart from swimming?
Pole-dancing! I just started. It’s a lot of fun and very relaxing for me.
What’s one thing about you that not many people know?
I’m a Gemini. So I’ve always felt that the person I am inside and the one I present to the world are very different. I’m trying to bring those two personalities much closer to each other now. So nowadays, if I don’t like a person, I’m going to limit my contact with them, but if I like you, I’ll try to treat you better.
You work with so many fashion brands now. Have you always had an interest in fashion?
I remember when I was young, I wrote on a slip of paper, “I want to be a fashion designer in the future.” It’s true! I never actually worked towards that goal though, because of swimming. Training takes up so much of your time, so you’re quite limited in your other interests. I wanted to take art classes when I was in high school but I couldn’t because I had training after school. And then in university, I wanted to take architecture, but I also couldn’t because I couldn’t dedicate my time to being in a studio. It’s a shame, but I think if I wasn’t a sportswoman, I would have headed towards a more artsy career.
Do you have a style icon?
I have a lifestyle icon. Natalie Coughlin is an American backstroker I really admire. She developed urban farming in the States and she now has her own winery, Gaderian Wines. I think she’s managed to transition from her athletic career to this food and wine business in the most amazing way. I think she managed to sustain her athletic career much longer because she can control what she eats. She grows all her vegetables and raises her own chickens. She makes her own pasta. I think she’s amazing.
Can you describe your own style?
Comfortable. When you have to take your clothes off twice a day to get into a pool, you really don’t want to wear too many clothes or wear make-up! [laughs] I think it’s only during Chinese New Year when there’s no training that I feel like I could dress a little better and put on more make-up.
How do you keep it real on social media? Basically, how do you decide how much of your life to share?
I did consider if I wanted to create another private account for myself, especially right after the Olympics, when I suddenly gained a lot more followers. I began wondering if I needed to post more related content; if people followed me because I’m an athlete, are they expecting to see more sports-related content? I never really used to post anything related to my training because it seemed so boring. I only posted things I find interesting. But then I thought: this is who I am. I’m going to do what I want. So now I still post whatever I feel like. [laughs]
You recently had a movie cameo, acting alongside Shawn Yue in Love Off the Cuff. What was that experience like?
It was quite fun! But making a movie involves so many people. It was a lot of pressure. I also don’t think I was any good at it, so I worried I was just in people’s way a lot. I think if I were to consider this as a career path, I’d have to take it way more seriously. I also have a role in a new TVB television series, so that was also a lot of fun. But I think I’ll leave acting until after I quit being an athlete.
On top of all that, you were recently nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award in the Best New Performer category. Was that a surprise?
[laughs] I found it a little strange! It’s a little absurd because I had a cameo in the movie and just six lines. My name was thrown into the mix and for some reason, I was nominated. It’s crazy because the Hong Kong Film Awards is such a big deal, and I think I’m probably the luckiest person alive to have gotten the nomination, but I don’t think I deserve it. I’ve watched the awards since I was young and I’ve always thought it’s such a grand affair. I’m happy enough to get to go to the awards and watch it live.
Is there anything else you want to try?
I’ve tried so many things already. I think having done all these different things, I’ve come to realise that my true love is still swimming. If I hadn’t tried other things, I might not have known this. It’s a funny thing. But swimming professionally – that’s the one thing I want to do for now.
Photography / Karl Lam
Styling / Kieran Ho
Hair / Jean T from A Ten Studio
Make-Up / Chi Chi Li
Manicure / Jasmine Chan from HK Makeup Artist
Styling Assistant / Bobo Lau
This feature originally appeared in the April print issue of #legend. Lip looks created using rouge unlimited supreme matte lipstick and magic metallic lip liner from Yazbukey x shu uemura #mattitude collection