No guts, no glory; no pain, no gain. High-jumper Cecilia Yeung and fencer Nicholas Choi have been competing professionally for most of their adult lives and understand, more than anyone else, what it’s like to deal with self-doubt and struggle. We talk to the two athletes and influencers about their drive, their sacrifices and their olympian dreams.
Competing in the Olympics is a dream harboured by every serious athlete. Getting there is another story. Talent alone isn’t enough – a multitude of other factors come into play: passion, hard work, strength of mind, timing, maybe even a stroke of luck. Traditional media tends to focus on the big wins – breaking records and going to the Olympics are headliners that draw people’s attention. But behind the scenes, an athlete’s internal battles, sustained injuries and stagnant growth don’t always come to light.
Professional Hong Kong athletes Cecilia Yeung and Nicholas Choi tell us that struggle is just as important as milestones. Yeung made headlines when she cleared 1.88 metres and set the current Hong Kong women’s high-jump record in 2017. Choi shot to fame when he qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics and, at the age of 19, became the youngest fencer to represent Hong Kong at the Games. Today, they’re both sitting out the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, but their sights are still on the ball – going to the Games in 2024 in Paris is a shared dream.
“It was always a dream for me to go,” Choi tells me on the day of the cover shoot. It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, but Choi is all smiles on and off the camera, his slicked-back, platinum-blond hair cutting through the gloom. “For fencing, the biggest competition is the Olympics.” In fact, when he did eventually qualify to go, it didn’t feel real. “I felt like it was still a dream.
I called my parents, my family, everyone was crying and everyone was so happy. But for me, it took a few days for it to sink in and for me to be like, Oh my God, I’m actually going to the Olympics. Like, actually.”
The former Olympian grew up around fencing. His father was a team manager for the Hong Kong Fencing Association and his twin sister, Natasha Erica Choi, competed at an international junior level. In fact, he’s credited his sister in the past for being his motivation. When she was selected to join the Hong Kong Sports Institute junior fencing team, he resolved to train harder so he’d have his turn too.
And his turn did come. In 2010, Choi placed second at the Cadet World Championships and in the same year qualified for the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics. By 2012, he was part of the senior fencing team and went to the 2012 Summer Olympics, for which he received a Hong Kong Potential Star Award. In 2018, at the Asian Games, he won a silver medal in the men’s foil event.
But his rapid move through the ranks took its toll.In December 2018, he announced his retirement from the sport, posting on Instagram, “The past 15 years have been an incredible journey. It’s now time for me to venture elsewhere and create a new chapter in my life, even if there’s no absolute plan about my future for now.”
He’s been training every day since he was 14 as a junior cadet, he tells me. “It was a very easy decision to retire in 2018 because, back then, I really felt like I was done. After the Asian Games, I was so done with fencing. I knew I did really well, but I wanted to start a new page. I was tired of doing the same thing every day and there were other things I wanted to do, other things I hada passion for.”
Sport, at the highest level, can be a lonely journey that not everyone’s capable of making. Choi struggled as early as 2015, but his coach, his teammates and therapy helped pull him through. It’s a struggle that Hong Kong high-jumper Yeung understands completely, having found herself in similar circumstances during her formative years.
Yeung only became a full-time high jumper in 2016, when she was in her second year of university, explaining her decision as a natural evolution in her sporting career. “It was simply a matter of feeling that I had the potential, and at that time I wanted to put more time into it, to see how far I could go. That’s how I became a full-time athlete,” she says.
She discovered a talent for jumping when she was in her high-school volleyball team and her schoolmates would comment on how high she could reach during her spikes. She started training with a part-time coach; within two years she found herself ranking among Hong Kong’s best athletes and joined the Hong Kong team. This year marks her 13th year in the sport.
“I began to realise that I was actually pretty good at this. I felt like I belonged here,” says Yeung. “One of the reasons why I love high jump so much is because of this feeling you get, this ‘hang time’, which is like a moment of suspension in the air when it feels as if time has completely stopped. It makes me feel as if I’ve left the world behind and I’m looking down and everything is in slow motion. It’s an amazing feeling and that’s howI fell in love with the sport.”
Yet she struggled to make an impact. As a member of the Hong Kong team, Yeung was good, but she wasn’t the best and for a long time – six years, in fact – felt she was making little or no improvement. “There was a six-year period when nothing happened, and I wasn’t improving or breaking records. I wasn’t even ranked first in Hong Kong at the time. I wasn’t special among my team members.”
Yeung says she tended to overthink and get into her own head, and as much as she wanted to improve and work hard, there was a mental block she couldn’t overcome – or at least not until she took time away from the sport to figure things out.
“I set aside high jumping for a bit,” she recalls. “For nine months, I completely stopped jumping and focused on other things instead. I picked up dancing in university and joined the dance team. I think that’s when I learned how to relax and I started to make sense of where I was with the sport.”
Yeung’s fitness and strength improved with her dancing, and she was able to get back into high jumps with a fresh mind. “It was only when it was time to enter competitions again that I actually got back into high jumping. Everything felt so fresh. That’s when I started to see results and started breaking Hong Kong records.”
“‘Hang time’ is a moment of suspension in the air when it’s as if time has completely stopped. It makes me feel as if I’ve left the world behind … It’s why I fell in love with the sport.”Cecilia Yeung
When, at last, she broke the record she was elated. “The moment I found out I’d broken the record, I was at an all-time high. It took me eight years, but I did it!
I was high jumping for two years and did really well before I joined the Hong Kong team, which was when I set myself the goal of breaking the Hong Kong record. After I said that, it only took me six years to actually achieve it,” she says, laughing at the irony.
“I feel that there are a lot of things that only become meaningful because of how hard it was to achieve them. Maybe it’s my mindset,” says Yeung. “Things that come too easily for me make me not know how to treasure them. I need to know that I’ve put in a lot of effort for something great to happen. That’s when I learn to treasure it.”
Every moment of glory is underlined with years of strife and sacrifice. According to Yeung, her career can roughly be divided into three stages. The initial stage was the long road to her first Hong Kong record. The second stage was when she was at her peak, breaking six records in succession – until she injured herself and tore a tendon in her Achilles heel, effectively putting her out of the sport while she recovered. Now, she’s getting back into the sport post-injury, feeling more mature and in a better place mentally.
Both Yeung and Choi live extraordinary lives outside of their sports. When Choi took a break in 2018, he turned his attention to fashion, an area of interest he shares with his sister. Whereas his sister works for a brand, Choi makes a living from being an influencer, showcasing his immense sense of style on Instagram, and attending shows and events in Hong Kong.
“I love doing shoots,” he tells me. “It’s kind of like a healing time for me from training and other stuff. When I’m at a shoot, I feel really relaxed.” Choi loved fashion enough to step away from the world of sport and write a new chapter for himself. When he retired from fencing two years ago, he really thought it was the end. But now, after a two-year hiatus and amid Covid, the sport has once again piqued his interest.
“I was really stressed and tired of fencing then, but now that I’ve taken a break, I thought it might be good to pick it back up again.” Covid changed things for Choi, who had his heart set on attending fashion weeks and travelling the world. Finding himself stuck in Hong Kong, fencing once again piqued his interest. As it was his passion for so long, it seemed right that it would drag him out of this interminably depressing situation.
When Choi retired from fencing two years ago he thought it was the end. Now, after a two-year hiatus and amid Covid, the sport has once again piqued his interest
He has a new coach, and although he still has the same teammates he tells me that “it feels very different coming back, it’s like a different life. Even though I’m still training with the same teammates, I was the one who left and came back, so everyone’s also different now. We have a different coach, a whole new training programme, so to me it’s like, ‘Wow, this is all so new, so fresh.’It’s been a month now but it’s still fresh to me and I’m really enjoying it.”
With more life experience under his belt, Choi also feels that he’s in a new frame of mind when it comes to competitions. He took part in his first competition in years just a few weeks ago and, without stressing himself too much, he achieved fifth place – a pretty good start for someone just beginning to get back into the game.
“I used to suck at competing, because I’m always giving myself unnecessary stress,” he says. “I overthink andI can’t sleep, and during a competition I just want it to end. It’s not healthy for an athlete. And as a fencer, overthinking it won’t make you better, it’ll only make you worse.”
Choi describes fencing as being like the chess of sports. “With fencing, I’d say half of it’s about physical training. The other half is about mental training, because you’re constantly predicting your opponent’s next move. So, before the start of the game, you need to calm down and focus. Even if you’re physically strong, if you’re mentally weak you can lose in the first round. And vice versa, if you’re weaker but you can stay calm, you can just as easily win.”
Choi is in it for the long haul. “I train every day from Monday to Saturday, but I do have little breaks in between and I’ll go to events or shoots,” he says.“But my priority is fencing again. It’s all about time management. If you really want to do something,
I’m sure there’s a way to do what you want.”What he really wants is to qualify for the Olympics once again. “My teammates are going this year andI hope I’ll get to go to the Asian Games next year. But my main goal is the next Olympics. I’m back on the team now and, as professional athletes, we need to aim for the biggest goals.”
Since her return to high jumping several years ago, Yeung’s passion for high jump hasn’t faltered. Although she’s an influencer and part-time model, high jump is her number-one priority. “To me, high jump is the most unique thing about myself,” she explains. “The other things I do give me exposure and opportunities, but they wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for high jump. It defines me and gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment.”
She laughs and says she loves to eat – even when she landed a job in Paris walking in Off-White’s fashion show she didn’t give up on eating her favourite things. On the other hand, she’d do anything for a competition, sacrificing late nights and junk food for success on the athletics field.
Yeung could have given up and retired when she injured herself and tore her Achilles heel in 2019, but she’s nowhere near thinking about quitting. “I don’t want to retire yet,” she says resolutely. “Even though I’m not 100 percent back, I tell myself I must try. At least, even if I fail, I’ll know I tried my best and won’t regret it later.”
Throughout our conversation, Yeung often reflects on the kind of person she is and wants to be. She didn’t have the easiest of childhoods – her parents separated when she was young and in past interviews has described herself as a street kid, extremely independent, preferring to do things on her own rather than receive help from others. She points to volleyball, a team sport that she enjoyed but ultimately dropped in favour of high jump, a solo sport in which her successes and failures depend on her – and her alone.
“It’s just the way I am,” she says. “I’m very harsh on myself. I think I can do it all and I’ll push myself to do everything myself. But now that I’ve had an injury, I’m trying to listen to people more often and I also try to listen to myself more often. If something hurts or doesn’t feel right, I’ll tell my coach rather than try to figure it out myself.”
She’s reading The Champion’s Mind, a book by sports psychologist Jim Afremow on how the greatest athletes think, train and thrive, which she finds deeply inspiring. “I’m now at a better place in my mind,” says Yeung. “I can still feel I’m not where I used to be, and even now I’m still healing from my injury. But I’m improving myself in other areas, and I know I have the ability to be even better than before.”
Currently aiming to qualify for next year’s Asian Games, she says she still feels she’s a better athlete.“I think my injury has made me learn a lot about myself. I want to be able to enter competitions now with this new and improved Cecilia Yeung, who has a better mindset to deal with big competitions.”
(Hero Image: (ON HIM) OUTFIT CHRISTIAN DIOR RING BOTTEGA VENETA BRACELET GUCCI (ON HER) OUTFIT CHRISTIAN DIOR EARRINGS, NECKLACE AND BRACELET DIOR)
Cecilia Yeung and Nicholas Choi Cover Story
PHOTOGRAPHY KARL LAM
STYLING JACKY TAM
FIRST ASSISTANT STYLIST KAZ LAM
SECOND ASSISTANT STYLISTS MELODY CHAN AND WAYNE CHOW
MAKE-UP EVELYN HO
HAIR JEAN TONG