When contemplating possible career choices, most young people have a general idea about what they hope to be doing a few years from now – something in finance, launching a business, or perhaps making a name in the world of IT.
Sophia Wu, though, is already focused on a very precise objective. She plans to be in Paris in July 2024 as a member of the Hong Kong team taking part in that year’s Summer Olympics - and is well on the way to achieving her goal.
“I wanted to be a full-time fencer from the age of 10 or 11,” says Wu, a specialist with the foil who, when Covid permits, trains six days a week at the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI) and competes regularly on the international circuit. “When I was in Primary 6, I realised I could be very good at this sport. It requires a combination of strength, technique and strategies, which I really like, along with the sense of excitement you get before and during a big competition.”
A series of outstanding results, including fifth place in the women’s foil team event at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and one silver plus two bronze medals at the Asian Junior and Cadet Fencing Championships, led logically to the offer of a place at the HKSI.
Wu began there last September, after completing her DSE exams at Heep Yunn School, and now receives a generous monthly allowance as one of the select group of full-time athletes. Maintaining a strict training schedule has been difficult recently, but usually it would entail morning and afternoon sessions at least five days a week. These mix strength work in the gym with drills to improve speed and technique, as well as one-on-one sessions with coaches and teammates. There is also the mental aspect to help in hitting peak performance in competitions and to “de-stress” when necessary.
“The most important commitment is to train 25 hours a week,” says Wu, who was named best sportsperson in Student of the Year Awards 2019/20, which were organised by the SCMP and Young Post and sponsored by The Hong Kong Jockey Club. “But we have fun and support each other, so I really enjoy it.”
With her mother’s encouragement, Wu first tried fencing at the age of four or five, and something immediately clicked. In part, the initial attraction lay in the “cool” outfit and equipment, but she soon found that winning age group cups was a way to stand out at primary school and that made her feel a bit special.
“I started with the foil – that’s the tradition in Hong Kong – and a coach in secondary school said I should stick with it rather than switching to the other weapons [sabre and epee],” Wu says. “The most difficult thing recently has been to step up from the junior ranks to the seniors where competitors have more strategies and experience. There is still a lot to learn.”
In normal times, Wu could expect to attend around 15 international events a year, aiming always to improve her official world ranking which is currently 101. Her other medium-term targets include helping the Hong Kong women’s team climb the rankings and qualify for the upcoming 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou.
Also important is the marketing degree she is now taking at Hong Kong Polytechnic University with the support of a full scholarship awarded for sporting success. With time constraints limiting her to nine credits per semester, it may take seven years to graduate, but that is no cause for concern.
“I’m enjoying the course and, so far, I’ve been able to keep up by studying online at lunch time and in the evening,” she says “At some point in future, I’d like to do a sports-related marketing job. For now, though, fencing is my passion and an indispensable part of my life.”