Hong Kong Olympic Swimmer Stephanie Au Uncovers the Lifestyle Choices That Make a Champion
Stephanie Au has achieved a feat no Hong Kong has done: represent the city in four Olympic games. The four-time Olympic swimmer is also the holder of Hong Kong national records, inspiring and paving the way for today’s generation of swimmers. A Gen.T honouree, Au first swam in the Olympics when she was just 16 years old and now at 29, competed again at the Tokyo Olympics.
With more than a decade in the pool, representing Hong Kong, Au knows what it means to be a champion. She also knows how important it is to make healthier lifestyle choices to tackle the pressure of being an athlete and of modern living. With this, she collaborated with Nespresso to co-create a plant-based coffee recipe that was exclusively available at Plantbase in Causeway Bay last month.
In an exclusive interview, Tatler sits down with the celebrated athlete to know more about the role coffee plays in her life as a champion and how she manages to stay healthy.
Tell us about your swimming journey.
Yes, it’s been a while. I started swimming when I was nine years old so it’s been 20 years. And I feel that I have achieved everything through swimming so it basically concludes my life so far. I’m happy with what I’ve done with swimming and outside of swimming. I’ve tried different things outside of the swimming world too and it definitely allowed people to see who I am too. But everything came from my success in swimming.
You started swimming at a young age. Was there a moment when you decided that you wanted to do this as a career?
I didn’t really just start swimming instead, I started training to become like Michael Phelps but really, no. (laughs) He definitely inspired me back in the 2008 Olympic Games, watching him right in front of me and winning all those gold medals. And at that moment, my life changed. The thought just came through me and I wondered if maybe one day, I can do the same thing. And that’s how I turned from just going through the motions in swimming to training more. I know that I have the potential so I thought, maybe it’s good for me to be accountable and to do it for myself so I became more motivated.
What lifestyle choices do you make to stay physically and mentally fit?
Besides coffee, I definitely try to live a simple life—if that makes sense. For instance, I have a very clean-cut friend list and I have a very tight, close friend group. I’m also the only daughter, the only child in my family so friends mean a lot to me. This way, I would be a lot more focused and loved. It’s almost in sync with an athlete’s life because it has to be very close as all we do is wake up, train, eat, sleep, train again, sleep then we eat and sleep again. It’s very routine and very clear cut. In terms of diet, there’s nothing specific because we swim and we burn calories. In general, we just eat as much as we can eat but in a cleaner way. That’s our slogan.
This sounds cheesy, but I think sports is definitely a very important element that you could get into. And it’s sustainable. It’s also because when you get older not a lot of sports would be suitable for your body. But swimming for example, without gravity, you can’t move and adjust your mobility and it just brings happiness and makes you feel at ease. For me, it’s so handy—doing a sport and feeling happy. As much effort as you put in, you get the same amount of happiness. You don’t get that ratio in a lot of places, but in sports you do.
You’re the first athlete to represent Hong Kong four times in the Olympics. Which one is the most memorable?
I really can’t say which one. Each is so different and I value them just the same because it’s the Olympics so I don’t want to pick. For the first one, I did great. I think I did the best out of the four in my first one. But the second one, I underperformed because I realised how hard it is to make to actually make it to the Olympics. There was so much pressure and you can last get lost. And the third one—2016 was definitely a turning point in my life. And 2020, we’re in Tokyo and it was memorable. It’s just hard to decide.
Speaking of coffee, can you tell us more about this collaboration with Nespresso?
It’s really interesting because this collaboration is with my two other fellow athletes. The idea of collaborating with Nespresso really resonated with me because I really appreciate Nespresso for having three athletes talk about their athletic life and their relationship in coffee. I feel like it’s so authentic, in a way, so I wanted to be part of it. One of my teammates also gave me a Nespresso machine for my birthday so it was already part of my life before this collaboration. Coffee is something that I need in my life.
How do you incorporate coffee into your daily routine?
I basically drink coffee every morning before I go to practice. It’s basically part of my life, part of my routine. It’s really as simple as that. If I skip breakfast accidentally, I will skip drinking coffee. I feel energised with coffee and just going through the routine of making it myself is a habit. Sometimes, my mum wants to make it for me in order to save time but it doesn’t work that way. I have to pick my own coffee and it’s something that I want to drink before I start my day.
Tell us more about the plant-based coffee recipe that you worked on.
There’s a lot of nuts because that I love nuts. Honestly, I didn’t say that before. There’s a very limited choice of nuts that I would take so I incorporated what I can into my coffee. I love honey in my coffee too. I really love honey Americano.
Actually, I first learned about plant-based milk when I was studying in the US, in Berkeley, and I tried a lot of different plant-based milk but I thought, “Oatmeal, really?” That stayed with me. So I switched it up because it’s sustainable but also for the taste, so it goes both ways.
What aspect of plant-based coffee do you like?
It’s almost like it’s a part of me because I used to study environmental economics, that’s my major. So I’ve always had sustainability in the background. It’s really urging me to make things sustainable and stay sustainable, as much as I can. In my daily life, it’s almost natural to just pick plant-based in a way. It’s definitely better for the environment. I feel like I talk a lot. (laughs) I think it’s the easiest to understand from a carbon footprint point of view. Plant-based milk, definitely has less carbon footprint when we drink it.
Throughout your journey as an athlete, what’s the most important thing that you learned about yourself?
I’ve learned to stay true to myself and to listen to what I truly want. I learned it especially when I started to become a professional athlete because there’s so much distraction. But if swimming is really what I wanted, and just going under the one minute for my 100 backstrokes is my goal, then there should be nothing that’s stopping me or hindering me from moving toward that goal. You have to stay true and ask yourself if you really wanted that or else you’ll just feel lost. It’s important to ask yourself questions along the way or else you’ll be very miserable.
How has swimming changed your life?
I used to be a very lazy person. If I wasn’t swimming, I’m sure I would be just laying around and doing nothing. But sports, I personally think it gives us a platform to just practice self-accountability. That’s how I would put it because you have to commit. You have to get up every morning, go to the swimming pool every day and you kind of create this day to day practice. And with practising, you’re making your body do things that it might not want to do so before you even realise, you’re becoming more and more accountable. And that accountability, I feel like it leads to success even in all the other fields, I’m pretty sure that this value sticks. That’s how swimming changed me.
How do you overcome your nerves and the pressure before a competition?
Routine helps a lot. In other words, it’s more like training yourself to get ready to be pressured. If I know the competition’s going to be very pressuring, I vividly visualise that pressure along the way, things like how I’m going to feel, what people are going to talk about, how competition is going to look like. I visually bring myself to close my eyes or even just daydream, I think about it, and go through those kinds of emotions.
That’s preparing myself for the pressure like and if I can handle it in the beginning, then I can probably handle it again later. Otherwise, it would be too overwhelming. If you keep putting yourself in that uncomfortable situation, almost like it’s outside of your comfort zone, then you’ll get used to it more and by the time it’s really the Olympics, you’ll be less pressured. It won’t completely go away or that you wouldn’t feel it at all but it definitely helps to visualise.
Hong Kong’s performance in the Tokyo Olympics garnered more interest in sports. Do you have any hopes for the future?
I hope that after Tokyo 2020, more parents will see the benefits of sports and encourage their children to pursue them. It’s sustainable being an athlete and that it’s worth their time. There’s this belief that being an athlete isn’t a viable full-time job or that it’ll end by the time you’re 30 years old and you have to find something worth your time. I hope that this mindset would change a bit.