Staying connected to sport
Overcoming the odds is something Vivian Lee has been doing from a young age. Despite taking up swimming relatively late - when she was 11 - and lacking the large frame of most top-level competitors, she was already representing Hong Kong by the time she was 15.
The highlight of a swimming career, that lasted until she was 23, came at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan, when she won a silver medal in the 4x100m women's freestyle relay. Gaining a sports scholarship to the University of Hong Kong in 1996, Lee continued to train and compete while working towards her degree in business administration. She joined Octagon, an international sports marketing and public relations (PR) firm in 1999, before moving to international agency Fleishman-Hillard in 2003.
Missing the buzz of the sporting arena, Lee set up ActionHouse International with business partner Mal Thompson in 2005, focusing on sports marketing and helping athletes find commercial sponsorship. Their clients include the prestigious Laureus World Sports Awards.
How did you combine studying with swimming?
I needed to get up at five in the morning so I could spend two hours in the pool before going to school. Right after school I got to do homework. Maybe I could squeeze in 30 or 40 minutes - it didn't matter, every time I could sit down I'd just do my homework. Then I'd spend one hour in the gym and another two in the pool. After training I'd go home, have dinner and then spend an hour or two doing homework before going to bed.’
What sacrifices did this schedule entail?
All my friends could walk around shopping malls, do karaoke and spend time talking on the phone catching up on the latest gossip. I felt isolated because all I knew was swimming. And since I was travelling for events at that time, I had to repeat Form Six. This was a difficult decision because I felt I was being left behind.
During the New Year holiday, all the pools in Hong Kong shut down for four days. So, I had to travel to Guangzhou and stay there by myself to continue training. This was when I was 14 and 15.
Had you developed a plan for your working life before you stopped swimming competitively?
No. When I was studying I didn't know what I wanted to do and I didn't even know what public relations involved. I sent out resumes to advertising and public relations companies and I applied to management trainee schemes.
Why did you decide on the PR industry?
I asked questions from senior athletes who had made a similar transition because, initially, I was a bit lost. Through my connections and my background in sport, I knew some people who helped me get involved in the PR industry.
What qualities helped you make this transition?
My academic background was important, but the things I developed through my swimming training were even more important. To train for five hours every day I had to be disciplined. For a swimmer I'm not tall and I don't have the advantage of a big body, but I'm a very determined person and if I really want to achieve something I am very focussed.
Also, I got to travel a lot for competitions and through that process I picked up social skills. I would say, I'm always the happy one and not problematic to deal with.
What is your working day like?
I work 10 hours every day. I need to communicate a lot with our clients and the media. I also need to look after the athletes we manage and explore commercial opportunities for them.
One of my roles is to explore the Chinese market, for which we have some plans this year and next. The potential for development in mainland China is huge with a need for big tournaments, international exposure and athlete management.
What's the best part of your job?
The creativity it requires. Because of some crisis you might have to change your plans completely. If it, say, rains on a big event you need to have a contingency plan.
Another advantage is I get to see a lot of sports stars - not only swimmers but, for example, soccer and tennis players too. Last month in Abu Dhabi, I met [Rafael] Nadal, Caroline Wozniacki, Bobby Charlton and Edwin Moses.
Also, staying in a sporting environment keeps me young, and I'm very excited whenever I see Hong Kong or China holding some good international event.
I kept asking myself whether I would achieve anything once I gave up swimming. But setting up your own business is scary and not many people have the courage to do it.
What are your secrets for success?
Determination. In 1992, I qualified for the Barcelona Olympics. But they had to cut down the numbers in the athletes' village and I was one of the ones who were sacrificed. I wanted to give up but I felt if I did, I wouldn't feel good. Then in 1994 my dream came true.
Goal setting is also important. You need to listen to yourself and find something you feel passionate about. My passion is sport. I tried working for an agency that wasn't involved in sport and I found that although I could do it, I did not want to. It wasn't exciting. So in 2005, I set up a company with my partner focussing on sports.
It is also important to prioritise your time, think long term and be open enough to listen to other people
What is your advice to young people?
It is very important to talk to your parents about what you are feeling. If you find it very difficult then write down your true feelings not what your parents want to hear.