Is Hong Kong a potential Asian marathon swimming capital?

Is Hong Kong a potential Asian marathon swimming capital?

Open water swimming in Hong Kong is now becoming increasingly popular. In the recent few years more and more people have escaped from the confinement of the walls and got into the sea, with a surge in these few months caused by pool closure as well. However, I feel that our potential of taking this to the extreme has not developed yet.

In élite level, we have young kids like Bill Thorley who are really doing well. Now marathon swimming is an Olympic sport, but there is little media coverage of that compared to traditional pool swimming in Hong Kong which produces super stars like Stephanie Au. Traditional swimming clubs are seldom seen in the sea and beaches. Most people who train open water come from triathlon background. I am not saying this is bad but it really limits the demographic for the exposure of the sport. Also, triathletes need to bike and run after swimming, and most of them are only interested to swim to the T1 in order to bike and run. They are generally not interested to take the swimming to an extreme. Even an Ironman swim is a “sprint” compared to the 10 km Olympic swim, or even a Channel swim. So long-distance swimming, as a sport, is still not well-known here.

Back to amateur level, the Hong Kong “Amateur” Swimming Association has made the annual Harbour swim a “fun” crossing more than a “race” (as indicated by the quota), with so few quota in the actual race which most people can’t even qualify, which in my opinion makes people think that open water swimming is not a “serious” sport that everyone can do. It is meaningless for me to do the 1 km “fun crossing” after I have done the iconic cross-Bosphorus race in Istanbul which all participants, about 2500, are all electronically timed with prizes in each age group. Apart from the Harbour race, the HKASA also holds two 2 open water races per year. However the longer distance categories (5 km / 10 km) are run according to FINA rules, have high barrier of entry which effectively serve as the national championship. The shorter distance categories are 600 m or 1.7 km which are entered by the public. Outside the HKASA there are also some races as well, like Sheko Challenge which are entered by hundreds of swimmers and runners.

The above races are all short distance races and marathon swimming (defined by 10 km or above) remains a virgin territory in Hong Kong. In other countries, open water swimming races typically offer multiple race distances (e.g. 2 km, 5 km and 10 km) to cater for different people. There are not many races in Hong Kong doing that. In particular, apart from the national championship, there are no races in Hong Kong at the standard 10 km Olympic distance which serves as a gateway to marathon swimming.

There are 3 marathon swimming races in Hong Kong each year, one is the 10 km national championship held in Tai Mei Tuk, held concurrently with the 1.7 km mass-participation race, another two are Clean Half (in autumn) and Cold Half (in winter) which is on the same 14 km course in the open sea with kayak or boat support. These have a time limit of 6 hours and can be entered by amateur marathon swimmers which I have done. However, there is nothing between the shorter 4 – 5 km races and Clean Half / Cold Half (which are not suitable for novices because of the current and rough condition in the open sea). The numbers of participants of Clean Half and Cold Half are small, and not many are non-expat local swimmers. The number of solo swimmers are commonly between 10 – 20, with only a handful being local (the others are expats and visitors), which are much less than similar races of about the same distance in other regions of the world.

If you are looking for the ultimate challenge in Hong Kong, you may consider the round Hong Kong swim, HK360, which has only been done by 4 people including only 1 local (Alex Fong). However, it is a challenge comparable to the English Channel in Europe or round-Manhattan swim in the Americas which isn’t to be taken lightly.

If we look further to the world, English Channel, which is considered the mecca of ultraswimming, has not been swum by a Hongkonger yet. However, it has been swum by a few dozens of New Zealanders whose population is less than us, and live much further than us (there isn’t even a single aeroplane which can fly from New Zealand to the U.K. non-stop!). We have the environment for marathon swimming but we can’t even produce a channel swimmer, that’s not a good sign at all.

We have everything needed to train marathon swimmers. We have 50 m standard pools in every district in the city. We have swimmable coastline and beaches around the city along half of the Island and New Territories. The whole 7.5M population lives within 1 hour from the coastline by public transport. The climate is good for swimming year-round, from 16°C in February which is good for channel swimming to a tropical 30°C in summer. We can find sheltered calm water in Deep Water Bay and also rough water exposed to the wind in Stanley and Shek O encountered by a single swim of a few hours!

I really hope that I can build up a marathon swimming community before I leave next year. I have already contacted a few expats marathon swimmers in the city and also a few locals who are interested to take on the challenge as well. I will need to build a network of swimmers, crews and observers. I’m going to observe a swim by Isaac Yuen, who lives in Tseung Kwan O soon, which will be done along the coast of Clear Water Bay peninsula as an experiment of the internationally-recognised observed and documented solo swim. It will be a kayak-supported only swim. In the next winter, I want to do some further swims in the open sea which will require motor support. In particular I want to do a swim of about 25 km in open water with currents and tides, in February when the water temperature is about 17°C, feeding from the boat and including a night section as well, observed and documented exactly in the way like an English Channel swim, as a training swim before I swim the Channel next September. However, I haven’t worked out how I can find affordable motor support yet, and I hope that it can be done. It is now my last barrier to build up a sustainable marathon swimming community using only local resources.

I believe that, once a self-sustaining marathon swimming community is formed with a network of swimmers, pilots, observers and race organisers, Hong Kong, as an international city, can become the Asian capital of marathon swimming will iconic challenges attracting people all over Asia to come like the English Channel, and well-known races worth respect of the local community and attract big-title sponsors like the 20 Bridges.

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