Siobhán Haughey, renowned as Hong Kong’s “flying fish”, always wears a radiant smile on her face. Her remarkable swimming achievements have made her an idol, and she aspires to use her sporting accomplishments to encourage children to explore the benefits and delights of sports and foster a healthy lifestyle. As the AIA Hong Kong & Macau Ambassador, Siobhán has extended a heartfelt invitation to local primary schools to partake in the AIA Healthiest Schools Programme and share the results of their strategies in the AIA Healthiest Schools Challenge. Not only will the winning school be awarded exciting healthy experiences worth up to US$50,000, but it will also represent Hong Kong in the Regional Competition – competing with the winning schools from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam for the AIA Healthiest Schools Regional Award in the Primary School category.

Yet to reach her peak

Siobhán was born to an Irish father and a Hong Konger mother. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she had a typical childhood where limited space at home led her to ride a bicycle in the park whenever she wanted to exercise. Encouraged by her parents to embrace sports, Siobhán started swimming at the age of four with her older sister. As she got older, she began formal swimming training and made her debut on the international stage at the FINA World Junior Swimming Championships when she was just 16. At the age of 17, she participated in prestigious competitions such as the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics, the Incheon 2014 Asian Games, as well as the World Aquatics Championships, where she made history by breaking the Hong Kong record in the women’s 200m individual medley event. This achievement secured her place as the first Hong Kong swimmer to meet the Olympic Qualifying Time, earning her a spot in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Siobhán has won the Hong Kong Sports Awards four times. In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she made history by winning the Hong Kong swimming team’s first two silver medals. In the 19th Asian Games Hangzhou, she shattered the records in the women’s 100m and 200m freestyle events, winning Hong Kong’s first two Asian Games swimming gold medals. Since then, she has been on a whirlwind journey, participating in 29 competitions across four countries within 30 days, securing 15 medals and breaking countless swimming records. She shared on social media, “It wasn’t easy but you don’t realise what amazing things your body and mind are capable of doing through all the ups and downs.” When asked about the secret to her success, she emphasised the importance of the right mindset. “With a month-long competition schedule, I was exhausted both physically and mentally. It is crucial to maintain a fresh mental state and strive for improvement even in the face of fatigue.”

Having won medals in the Asian Games and Olympics, as well as consistently excelling in various competitions, Siobhán is assumed to have reached the pinnacle of her athletic career. However, she humbly disagrees. “I do not think I have reached the peak of my swimming career yet. I do not know where my peak lies, but I feel there is still room for improvement. I am driven to perform better in each competition. While I am uncertain where the finish line is, I know I have not reached it yet. This mindset constantly pushes me to train hard and surpass my previous performances.”

Overcoming the low points in life and striving for breakthroughs

Maintaining a robust physical condition at all times is one of the key factors for athletes’ success. Siobhán admits, “As an athlete, one of the biggest challenges is coping with injuries that disrupt training.” In the first half of 2018, she suffered from persistent ankle injuries and ultimately had to make the painful decision to withdraw from the Asian Games. During this trying period, she dutifully followed the advice of doctors and physical therapists and committed herself to rigorous physical therapy and rehabilitation. Yet, the mental toll remained. “Having trained extensively for the competition, it was frustrating to suddenly find myself unable to practise, let alone compete,” she confesses. “Fortunately, my coach, teammates, parents and medical team spared no effort in facilitating my speedy recovery and return to regular training.” Siobhán believes that injuries are an inevitable part of every athlete’s journey. The real test lies in how one adjusts his/her mindset when injured. “When your competitors continue training and thus make progress while you are unable to practise for months, it is easy to feel that you are regressing,” she reflects. “I realised that I must shift my mindset. When I could not complete the full two-hour training session, I focused on the one hour of practice on that day. Then, I worked my way towards a 90-minute training the next week, and ultimately the full two hours in a month’s time. An athlete’s career is inevitably filled with challenges, and it is our responsibility to find ways to overcome them.”

Parents who prioritise cultivating children’s healthy lifestyle habits

Siobhán has always valued a healthy lifestyle and has developed good habits such as regular exercise and a balanced diet. She attributes her success in the swimming world entirely to her parents. “Since I was young, my parents have placed great emphasis on nurturing a healthy lifestyle for both me and my sister. They encouraged us to engage in various types of sports, which eventually led me to swimming and the accomplishments I have today. My parents never insisted that we must love sports, but they ensured that we were aware of the wide array of physical activities available to us from an early age.” She believes that all-round and healthy development is paramount for children. “If children can acquire healthy habits from a young age and continue to cultivate more as they grow older, they will be able to lead a healthy life,” she states. Siobhán recognises that children spend even more time at school than at home. Therefore, school campuses are the ideal setting to help children establish healthy habits. It is for this reason that Siobhán is an avid supporter of the meaningful AIA Healthiest Schools Programme. She adds that a healthy lifestyle is more than just diet and exercise – it should also prioritise mental well-being. “If children can learn to regulate their mental state from an early age, they will be more capable of handling stress when they are older. Another crucial piece of advice is ensuring an ample amount of sleep for your little ones. With early school hours followed by homework and tutoring classes every day, children in Hong Kong are prone to sleep deprivation. I have come to truly appreciate the significance of sleep as an athlete. It serves as an athlete’s essential pathway to recovery and aids students in maintaining sharper focus at school.”

Sports and academics are not an either-or choice

As Hong Kong athletes continue to shine on the international stage, they serve as a beacon of inspiration for the younger generation to pursue their dreams of becoming athletes themselves. However, behind the nickname of Hong Kong’s “flying fish” lies a story of immense dedication. When she was studying at the University of Michigan, one of her most unforgettable experiences was the hectic schedule she had to keep alongside her fellow student-athletes during exam periods. “We would study together at the library until only 30 minutes before an exam, then rush to the exam venue. Afterwards, we
would immediately return to the swimming pool for training, only to find ourselves back in the library later in the evening. It was an intense and gruelling schedule, undoubtedly detrimental to our well-being. Nevertheless, in order to juggle academics and swimming, you have to adjust your time.”

Many professional athletes choose to focus solely on their athletic careers until retirement, before returning to school. What drove Siobhán to tirelessly juggle her studies and swimming career? “My greatest driving force is the desire to do my best in both realms. Balancing both identities as a secondary school student in Hong Kong was indeed challenging as there were not many student-athletes at my school. However, when I studied in the US, most of my teammates were student-athletes. We all had to navigate the balance between academic pursuits and swimming. Having a team of individuals who shared the same commitment and supported one another made the journey more manageable.” Siobhán aspires to use her athletic accomplishments to encourage more young children to explore the benefits and joys of sports. “Sports offer numerous benefits, including broadening children’s career options. I want them to understand that it is possible to balance academic pursuits and sports. Personally, I believe I have managed to strike a good balance and can serve as a role model, showing my fellow student-athletes that they do not have to sacrifice one identity for the other.” Siobhán is particularly grateful for her parents’ unwavering support. “I know for a fact that even if I do not achieve any notable accomplishments as an athlete, they will continue to support me. I am truly grateful to them.”

Siobhán has a keen interest in children’s mental health. While studying psychology at university, she developed a strong fascination with child psychology and hopes to return to academia one day to pursue a career as a child psychologist. She shares, “I had a wonderful childhood. However, as I grew older and began to interact with more people, I came to realise that not everyone had the privilege of growing up in a nurturing and joyful family. Our early experiences can have a profound and lasting impact on our growth, whether positive or negative. I aspire to become a psychologist to help children. Even when they are faced with unfortunate circumstances, I wish to provide them with the tools and support they need to navigate through life’s challenges, ensuring that their negative experiences do not hinder their future development.”

Siobhán and the students from Tsz Wan Shan Saint Bonaventure Catholic Primary School, the Hong Kong winner of last year’s AIA Healthiest Schools Challenge, had a blast while filming the promotional video of the AIA Healthiest Schools Programme.

AIA launched the AIA Healthiest Schools Programme in Hong Kong last year to encourage local primary schools to promote healthy lifestyles in the school community. Siobhán, who serves as the AIA Hong Kong & Macau Ambassador, supports the initiative and says, “Participating schools can have easy access to free teaching resources through the programme’s website, which have been thoughtfully designed by professionals to promote the concept of a healthy campus. With the help of these resources, students can joyfully learn about health and what it means to lead a healthy lifestyle. Children in Hong Kong are often too consumed by schoolwork to exercise or take care of their well-being. Students should not only concentrate on academics but also explore other aspects of life. I believe this programme can inspire them to have a more well-rounded development while simultaneously helping them relax, unwind and manage stress.” She encourages primary schools that prioritise students’ health and promoting healthy lifestyles on campus to visit the programme website, and sign up for the AIA Healthiest Schools Challenge, in which teachers and students can collaboratively build a healthier campus.

AIA Healthiest Schools Challenge