Dreams can come true — and Camille Cheng, our city’s two-time Olympian swimmer, is living proof.
Camille Cheng is just like us. During her downtime, she enjoys hiking or hanging out at the beach with friends. She also loves baking and trying new recipes. Recently, she’s taken on completing puzzles as her go-to meditative activity and now also enjoys knitting — a creative love shared by fellow Olympian Tom Daley.
There are a couple of ways in which she is not like us, though. Just a few. Post-Tokyo 2020, Cheng is taking some well-deserved R&R, so we grab this chance for a little tête-à-tête with our city’s two-time Olympian.
Were you a talented swimmer from the get-go, or did that ability manifest gradually?
I have always loved being in the water and have many fond childhood memories being at the pool after school with my sisters. Although I loved swimming from a very early age, I didn’t start competitively swimming until I was nine years old. I think I took to swimming naturally, but it definitely took years of hard work to get to where I am today.
When did the Olympic bug first bite? Was there a specific moment that inspired you to aim for the games?
I was living in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics and had the chance to go watch the swimming events. It was there that I first thought to myself, how cool would it be to be on the other side — as an athlete, and not a spectator. That was a thought I kept to myself for many years and it wasn’t until I went to university that I believed that this dream could become a reality.
What does a typical day of training look like?
A typical day of training consists of two, sometimes three, sessions. I have my morning routine (wake up, eat breakfast, stretch) before jumping into the water from 7:30am to 9/9:30am. Practice is followed by a second breakfast, and then either a gym or physio/rehab session. Afternoons consist of lunch and a nap to prepare for another afternoon swimming session. On days that I don’t have afternoon training, I do some cross-training (yoga, boxing, or physio).
How did you feel when you qualified for Rio 2016? How did that feeling compare to qualifying again for Tokyo 2020?
Qualifying for Rio 2016 was special for several reasons: One, when I touched the wall and saw that I had qualified, I was so happy that the Olympic dream I had eight years ago was going to become a reality; two, I felt proud to be one of four Hong Kong swimmers to ever qualify for the Olympics on with an A cut (automatic qualifying time).
Qualifying for Tokyo was much different than qualifying for Rio. For me personally, the road to Tokyo had a lot more challenges and obstacles than the road to Rio; for example, the additional pressure I put on myself to re-qualify. Also, there were many other factors that contributed to the difference — pandemic, personal goals and context and my growth as an athlete. Compared to Rio where I swam three individual events and one relay, I was a relay-only swimmer in Tokyo. Nonetheless, both Olympics were special for their own reasons.
Will you be aiming for Paris 2024?
Given I’m half French, it would be very special to participate in the Paris 2024 Olympics, but I can’t think that far ahead at the moment. Right now, I’m taking time post-Tokyo to rest and reflect on my next steps and goals.
What has been the most challenging aspect of being a professional athlete?
Overall, being a professional athlete at an elite level in sport requires daily high levels of physical, mental and emotional energy. Maintaining that over long periods of time has been personally tough — injuries, lack of motivation, burnout — and learning how to bounce back from those incidents.
You have a psychology background. Has that helped when it comes to regulating your mental health during high stress situations or pre-performance anxieties?
My background in psychology contributes to my philosophy of a holistic approach to athletic development. Just as we spend time to train our physical muscles, I believe that it is just as important to train our mental muscles, too. My background has equipped me with tools to develop and apply in situations needing emotional regulation during high pressure situations, or to boost confidence and motivation.
Who is the best teacher you’ve ever had, what is one important lesson that they taught you?
I’m fortunate to have had some great coaches and mentors throughout my swimming journey. Most notably would be my university coach, Teri McKeever, who saw swimming as a way to empower us not only as athletes, but as young women, too. There were many lessons that she taught me; one that has been especially relevant the last few years is that it’s okay to ask for help and for what you need.
You’re a lululemon ambassador. What about the brand philosophy resonates with you?
lululemon lives and breathes the ‘sweatlife’ — encouraging people and their communities to sweat, connect, and grow. Those three pillars of the sweatlife resonate with my personal philosophy. I am grateful that my platform as an Olympian has allowed me to share my athletic journey and passion for both physical and mental health in hopes of inspiring the community. As an ambassador, I’ve been able to collaborate with lululemon to curate online sharing and host in-person or digital sweat classes to promote physical and mental well-being.
What advice would you give to aspiring athletes?
A piece of advice to aspiring athletes: Know your “why”. This has always helped remind me, especially during the most challenging times, of my purpose.
Any goals you’re trying to achieve before the end of the year?
Complete my sports and performance psychology certification!
Follow Camille Cheng on Instagram here.