In the Fast Lane with Camille Cheng
When Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, then 15-year-old ISB student Camille Cheng ('11) tried to see every swimming session from the bleachers of the Water Cube. Eight years later, she made her own mark at the Rio Olympics representing Hong Kong in the 200-meter freestyle and 400-meter medley. She shared her experience of competing at the pinnacle of her sport.
For many athletes, becoming an Olympian is the pinnacle of their careers. Was it always an ambition for you as a competitive swimmer?
- When I first started swimming, the Olympics was always a dream but never something I ever believed possible. Not until I went to college and really improved did I think to myself, "I want this and I think I can actually do it" and it became a realistic dream.
What was your reaction when you found out you had made the Hong Kong team?
- My first reaction after seeing my time was relief, I got the time that I needed to qualify. Afterwards, I was very grateful and happy. I have a great support system that has pushed me, challenged me and supported me to get to that point. Looking back now it took a while for it to all sink in because I had qualified in December and still had 8 months till the actual Olympics.
How were you introduced to swimming and who were your idols in the sport?
- I spent my afternoons at the pool when I was growing up in Hong Kong, I loved being in the water but it wasn't until I moved to Beijing did I start competitively swimming. I was in PE class and the swimming coach at the time, Coach George, saw me swim and told me to try out for the team and I've been swimming ever since. I would say my idol growing up was Natalie Coughlin - also a Cal bear! Since then however, I've had many more.
What were your personal goals for Rio?
- In terms of swimming, I wanted to swim best times, aiming to make the semi-finals in the 200m freestyle but unfortunately didn't quite perform like I had expected and hoped for. However, I didn't want how I performed to ruin my overall Olympic experience so I didn't let myself get too disappointed - participating in 4 events was already a huge accomplishment for me, more than I could've ever imagined.
What was the atmosphere like at the Olympic Village? Is the relationship among Olympians, especially swimmers, one of camaraderie or competitiveness?
- The Olympic village was great. All the top athletes across all sports from every country all in one place, it was very special to be among that. I would say that the relationship among Olympians is definitely one of camaraderie for the most part. However, I think that amazing things happen when people are pushed and challenged and that a lot of the top athletes get to where they are because they are competitive. It's all positive and healthy competition.
What are some of your fondest memories of your time with ISB's swim team?
- That's a hard question... I would have to say all the competitions like China Cup and APAC with my teammates. For me, getting to race is the fun part of swimming and to share that with my teammates that became some of my best friends were memories that I will always cherish.
How do you unwind from the pressures of competition away from the pool?
- I think the biggest thing that has helped me with the pressure is surrounding myself with people that I care about and care about me and enjoy ourselves doing other activities separate from swimming. Swimming already takes up a lot of our time and so being able to check out from swimming helps me become more engaged when I need to compete or train. Some of my favorite things to do are go to the beach, arts and crafts and spend time with friends.
You majored in psychology. How important is mental toughness in swimming and do you feel your studies have given you an edge?
- Mental toughness is extremely important swimming, especially when it comes to racing for me. I feel that my studies have helped me develop into the type of swimmer I am today. I've learned a lot about myself and my strengths and weaknesses and how to work on a team and how to lead and all these things are skills and experiences that I tap into when I have hard times in training to push and motivate myself. When I race, I tend to be an overthinker and start doubting myself so learning strategies to cope with those things.
Reflecting on your time at ISB, what were some of the most important lessons you learned and how have they helped you in your current life?
- Two of the biggest things that I learned at ISB: the idea of balance and striving for excellence. Although swimming is a huge part of my identity, there are other things that make me who I am and other things that I enjoy. I believe that having a balance allows me to be more well-rounded and that I can learn new and different things about myself that then I can translate and reapply to other parts of my life. I would say that there is a culture of excellence at ISB and so I'm very motivated to keep learning, growing, and striving to be become the best Camille that I can be.
And finally, you're a UC Berkeley alumnus along with HK teammates Yvette Kong Man-yi and Stephanie Au Hoi-shun. Is it just a coincidence or is there something in the water over there?
- UC Berkeley has had its fair share of HK swimmers, even before us three, there were HK swimmers that went there too. I think we all have our own swimming journeys and we all happened to end up there together which has been very special. I'm thankful to be able to share it with them.