By Nick Yates, ISB Communications
The benefits of the International School of Beijing's (ISB) alumni network really flowed this week as students brought Olympic swimmer and 2011 graduate Camille Cheng to campus. Ms. Cheng, who represented Hong Kong at the Rio Games, coached the Varsity Swimming Boot Camp and talked to the community at large about the Olympics, psychology, and US college.
Anthea W, grade 10, and Miles H, grade 9, led organization of the activity and persuaded Ms. Cheng to take a break from training for the 2020 Olympics and come back to her alma mater. Her guidance on race mindset came in handy as ISB's swimmers prepare for China Cup and APAC competitions this month, but her mentoring also helped students with no interest in the pool.
Ms. Cheng majored in psychology at UC Berkeley and is studying for a master's degree in the psychology of the workplace. She was able to talk to current ISB students about excelling academically as well as in sport, and about discipline and time management. As she says, "a lot of life skills can be translated from swimming."
When Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, then 15-year-old ISB student Camille 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, competing in individual freestyle and relay events. From an athlete setting records at ISB (many of which have since been taken by Anthea W) to a wide-eyed Olympic debutante, Ms. Cheng is now swimming professionally and aiming to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
She said she aimed to inspire students with her appearance at ISB. Though she remembers an assembly with a top basketball player during her time studying in Shunyi, she said, "One of the things I didn't have then was someone who had gone in a similar direction in sports. I wanted to share my story and show people that it is possible to swim past high school."
The Olympian was impressed by the state of the school and how it has developed since her time here. "I'm happy to see that swimming is still strong at ISB," she said. "It also seems like academics is even stronger than when I was here. A lot has changed too – there are more resources for students with different interests."
As someone very healthy in body and mind, Ms. Cheng is a big believer in young people balancing their studies, exercise, and co-curricular activities. She said she was very well prepared for her undergraduate course after following the International Baccalaureate program at ISB, but that the intensity of the swimming training alongside time in lectures was a bigger shock. "It took me a while to get into the groove of doing both. Now, though, most students at ISB are involved in something other than schoolwork, with so many ASAs on offer. They're learning valuable life lessons."
As good a preparatory experience as ISB was, Rio was still like being thrown in at the deep end. She is full of stories from the Olympic Village. "When I got there, I tired myself out by how emotionally happy I was. It was seeing the other athletes from other countries that really got me," she recalled. "Hong Kong shared a building with Jamaica. We're waiting in line for the elevator and there was Usain Bolt right next to me. I was like 'Oh, my God!', but you have to be cool, you can't be a fan girl.
"The opening ceremony was definitely a highlight, and then of course getting to race... The problem mentally was that I hyped it up to be this once-in-a-lifetime chance, so I was too nervous. I swam four events, so by the fourth one I was a lot more settled. It definitely took me some time, with the cameras right in your face, the interviewers right after you swim."
This time, she said, she will be better prepared. "I will feel like I belong." And one place Camille Cheng will never be a fish out of water is at ISB. Who knows, maybe her next appearance here will be with an Olympic medal.