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How Hong Kong harbour swim racer beat his fear of drowning to be a triathlete

Inspired after watching a documentary about father-son duo Dick and Rick Hoyt a few years ago, in which Dick Hoyt pushes his severely disabled son through an Ironman triathlon, Hui Yiu-pun made a decision. He had weathered his fair share of challenges and, like the Hoyts, was determined to reinforce his spirit through the endurance sport of triathlon.

“At the time, triathlon was like this distant dream for me,” says 34-year-old Hui. “There are three sporting disciplines you have to combine in one effort, and a lot of things have to come together for you to succeed.”

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The biggest obstacle was that Hui had never learned to swim, and had had three near-drowning experiences. Undeterred, he got himself a coach and dived into the world of triathlon. “I felt like it would be a good way to test my limits,” he says.

Besides, it would be nothing compared to what he had faced in the past: in December 2009 he donated 70 per cent of his liver to his mother, who was suffering from cancer. Four years ago, he lost his older brother, a long-time sufferer of mental illness, to suicide.

Through swimming, he says, he has learned to find peace and face his fears. “When you’re in the water, it’s a fear of life or death,” he explains. “It’s not the same when running or cycling: your feet are on the ground and you can stop at any time, but in the water you are very vulnerable, you can only rely on yourself. And I feel that is the way to train how to be strong.”

He completed the ASTC Triathlon Asian Cup in 2014 (a 1.5km swim, 40km cycle and 10km run) and has his sights on one day completing a full Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42.2km run). In the meantime, his latest sporting challenge is the 1.5km New World Harbour ocean swim race on October 16 in Victoria Harbour.

It will be his second attempt at the open-water swimming event, thanks to the support of his friend and swimming coach Kitty Yuen.

Hui believes embracing sports is a way to show other sufferers to be strong in the face of adversity. “I want to show my god I’m so grateful to have this body and embrace these challenges while setting a good example for others.”

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What do you most enjoy about swimming?

When you’re swimming, you’re light. You don’t have any weight on your body. If you are calm you can hear the peaceful sounds of the water, but if you’re very fearful you can’t hear it. You have to learn to be peaceful. Plus, you cannot have your phone or other distractions, so you can really take a break from your daily life.

Most people wouldn’t dream of swimming in Victoria Harbour. What’s your motivation to take part in the race?

It’s very famous, who hasn’t taken the ferry across the harbour? And now I get to swim it. Besides, I wonder in the future, if Victoria Harbour will still be there – it keeps getting narrower and narrower because of the land reclamation.

What’s the most difficult part of long-distance swimming?

Learning how to breathe. Swimming a short distance is easy; you can get away with not breathing properly. But when you face a longer distance, like 1.5km, you cannot cheat. You cannot stop and stand up in the middle of Victoria Harbour to take a breath.

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What is your advice for someone who wants to start swimming?

Honestly I think the easiest way to learn swimming is just to put your face in the water and face your fears – in the shallow end, of course! Learning how to breathe is the next most important thing, but of course the hardest part. Hand and leg movement are next, but it is not as important, I feel. If you cannot face the fears or breathe, you will never progress.

Should more people become organ donors in Hong Kong?

More Hong Kong people should register to become organ donors in the event of their death so that people like me shouldn’t have to become organ donors in the first place. In Hong Kong, there is a very long wait for an organ; it is a bad situation and more people should learn about it and overcome these old taboos.

That said, I feel very grateful that I was able to help my mother. Not many people will have the opportunity to experience this. It has brought us closer together. We joke that she has a younger organ in her now, so she has become younger.