The Missing Puzzle Piece for Elite Athletes
Minnie SOO and CHOW Hiu-Yau became Hong Kong’s sports stars, when the former bagged the city’s first-ever bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 table tennis women’s team event, and the latter captured a bronze medal at the 2019 Asian Open Figure Skating Trophy. Among the whirlwind of international competitions and training sessions that occupied much of their lives, it would seem that something was missing for them.
The missing puzzle piece? School
“I have missed school dearly for 10 years,” says Minnie. “I turned pro when I was at Form 3. While initially I thought I would return to school after a couple of years, it turns out the competitions have kept me immersed in training every day. I miss classes and school life so badly that sometimes I dream about going back to school and feel sad waking up.”
After spending 10 years playing professional table tennis at the highest level, the 23-year-old has come to realize that she needs to plan ahead while still young.
“A few months ago, I began suffering from yips, a nerve injury that entails pain and spasms to my strong hand when I was trying to conduct repetitions,” says Minnie. “While I took time off to heal my injury, I read, think, and review my options ahead, including a return to school. The injury put things into perspective for me. Then I applied for HKUST, because of its reputation and my sister, who also graduated from here.”
Now it is a dream come true. Minnie has been admitted to HKUST School of Science via the Student Athlete Admission Scheme (SAAS), and will be starting university in the 2022/23 academic year. She is the first local student athlete admitted mainly based on sports achievements, due to a recent enhancement of the scheme to provide more flexible admission and assistance to top local athlete applicants.
“Hong Kong athletes currently lack options to pursue a second career outside of sports. HKUST aspires to provide them with the proper assistance and guidance to chase after their dreams and interests, as long as they show a commitment to pursue academics with the same ferocity. We celebrate the different talents that our students bring to the community,” says Professor King CHOW, Acting Dean of Students.
Life’s Second Chapter
Also a young phenom, Chow Hiu-Yau has been puzzled about her future life after professional sport.
“Anna SHCHERBAKOVA, the world champion and 2022 gold medalist, is only 17. If I were to challenge myself to higher heights, it is now, or never. At the same time, I want to plan ahead for myself — attending university while I compete is ideal,” says Hiu-Yau, who got accepted by HKUST as an engineering freshman via JUPAS last year.
“The Engineering School has offered me advice on course planning. All my lessons are arranged in two full days so I can use the rest of the week for training,” adds Hiu-Yau.
For the athletes who get in via other paths, the University is also ready to help.
Professor Emily NASON, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment and Admission, says the assistance would be as much personalized as it can be to suit the needs of each student athlete.
“Our team will get in touch with the athletes and their coaches to understand their needs. Our assistance includes a tailor-made class schedule that fits into their training schedule, course planning advice and in some cases, individual tutoring and personalized counseling services for athletes who represent Hong Kong in international competitions,” says Prof. Nason.
In addition, examination rescheduling and extending study periods can also be arranged if necessary. Student athletes may also receive tuition scholarships and living allowance of up to HK$42,100 and HK$55,000 respectively subject to requirements. Given all the assistance and offer, they need to meet the academic requirements like other students to earn their degrees.
Late, but never too late
“The delayed graduation offer has really eased my worries,” says Hiu-Yau. “It is said that a skater cannot leave the ring for more than three days, or else you will lose touch. I am not ready to give up on my touch just yet, but I am also not going to give up my interests in engineering down the road.”
For Minnie, she is eager to prove that she has as much to show in her work, just like she does on court.
“I still have a lot of gas left in the tank and expect myself to make the adjustments and give it all on the court after my injury is healed,” says Minnie. “But at the same time, I do not take the decision to go to university lightly, and I am committed to do as much work as I am asked at HKUST. I want to do well.”
Minnie adds that Physics is the discipline she would love to pursue. “Physics is what I would call a very intellectually challenging subject. I read a lot on Physics, and it helps me refine my table tennis skills, such as course prediction. Knowledge and education have done wonders for my mind.”
Prof. Chow certainly likes the determination that he sees from both, and the can-do spirit that is equally embraced by HKUST.
“Learning is always curiosity-driven at the university level,” Prof. Chow notes. “We want them to do well, both as an athlete and a student. I have no doubt that HKUST and our athletes will excel as a team.”