Meet Emily, finalist in the Asian Women of Achievement Award

“In three years, I went from not being able to swim the length of a pool to competing in the World Triathlon championships”

Emily Chong, who has been a volunteer Swim Coach at YMCA Club for over 8 years and is a qualified Personal Trainer through YMCAfit, was a finalist for the very prestigious Asian Women of Achievement Award in the Sports Category, so we caught up with her to find out more about her story. During my interview with Emily, I was genuinely blown away by her drive, determination and desire to break down barriers and help people.

Emily is an athlete who grew up in Hong Kong and moved to the UK for school when she was 13. She casually told me that she “raced for Hong Kong in a couple of Triathlon World Championships and before that, was the Hong Kong champion in wakeboarding. At school I played Judo to a national level, as well as playing lacrosse for Sweden in a European Championship.”

What she didn’t mention until 40 minutes into our conversation was…

“In three years, I went from not being able to swim the length of a pool to competing in the World Triathlon championships”

She explained: “In 2009 I couldn't swim at all but I wanted to do a triathlon, so I had to learn. I was trying to swim one length of this pool and I barely made it. And gradually I improved, one length at a time and eventually I swam the English Channel. It can be done.I started with a sprint triathlon where you only have to do a 400 m swim. I did more and more in training and three years after that, I went to the World Triathlon Championships,  competing for Hong Kong. Little by little, you gradually improve yourself.”

Emily, who is now a Swim Coach, fell in love with swimming and with her swim team she swam the 32 km of the English Channel “the hard bit of doing The Channel is the cold water and the darkness, and actually the seasickness is quite bad.'' They also went on to swim the 70 km length of Lake Geneva in 25 hours, considered one of the toughest open water swims,  often referred to as ‘The Ultimate Trophy Swim’.

Emily says she enjoys these challenges because she enjoys “being in a team...I like the logistics side of things. I like organizing things, getting into a team situation when you support each other. And I think once you finish it, there is a great effect on other people as well.”

She completed a solo swim from Spain to Morocco across the 22km wide Strait of Gibraltar “That took about five hours and I was horrendously sick in the middle. So I spent three hours vomiting and still trying to swim.”

“All these things seemed crazy at the time. But once you've done it, you realise that actually, if you can get the logistics right and if you train for it, it’s doable.”

Learning to ride a bike, then riding to Paris the following year

“I learnt to ride a bike at University because in Hong Kong there was nowhere to ride a bike. I had one of those foldable bikes and a year after learning how to ride, I decided to do a charity ride from London to Paris. And that's when I really learned how to ride a bike, having to ride four days in a row. I'm one of those people. Once I'm into something I just do lots of it. And keep doing it. Keep thinking about it all day long, until I get it.”

When a regular triathlon gets too boring

After competing in triathlons, Emily decided to push herself to longer distances, and started racing in half Ironmans, Ironmans and Ultra-triathlons (3.86km of swimming, 180km of cycling and a full marathon 42.2km of running). Then in 2019, Emily became the seventh woman in the world who managed to finish the Austria eXtreme Triathlon, one of the world’s toughest long-distance races, which takes the distances of the ultra into an extreme, mountainous landscape with 5,800 metres of uphill climb.

“The swim was an upstream, very cold swim and the ride was very hilly, over four mountains. And then the run had a 2000 metre climb and you had to cross the snow line. And the idea of these things is that most of the people who start can't finish or run out of time. That year I think that over half the people who started didn’t finish.”

Being a female, Asian, LGBT role model

“I find that there aren’t enough female role models or LGBT role models or Asian role models out there. And I kind of feel that maybe I should go and be that role model and do things and inspire people to be active, challenge themselves and do something that is crazy.”

“I also think that especially for Asian women in Asia, most of them are discouraged to play sports just because of the culture. Their parents think it’s a waste of time because they should be training as a lawyer or a doctor, or economists or that it’s dangerous to play sport. It's not for girls. And I think I have the privilege to live in the Western world where the culture is different. And I have the opportunity to do sports and I feel that if I don't do it no one else is going to.”

“If I can do it, you can do it, too. I'm not particularly bulky or strong, I'm not particularly fast and I don’t come from a family of athletes. But there are still lots of incredibly challenging things you will be able to do if you put your mind to it.”

Ultramarathon running

This summer Emily ran the Suffolk BackYard Ultra, an ultramarathon race where competitors run a loop of 6.7km every hour on the hour until they tap out. “For the last eight months, I've been doing a Masters so I've been super busy and haven’t been able to train but I had really good friends going so I thought I’d just go along and see how it goes. I ended up doing 12 laps. So I ended up doing 78 km, running from midday to midnight.

This race is about psychology and logistics and how you can control boredom, nutrition, hydration, and how to run as slowly as you can while still completing the loop in an hour, so that it's sustainable. I find these races super interesting because the advantage of men over women narrows down because obviously for men, they're better at maximal efforts and power just because of their testosterone. But for this race, skill and strategy comes into play and men and women can compete on a level playing field.”

Volunteering at the YMCA Club and breaking down barriers

For over 8 years, Emily has been volunteering as a swim coach for the Positive Strokes Programme here at YMCA Club, a swim group for people with HIV and has also volunteered as a swim coach for some of our swimming programmes for children and young people. She originally found the programme whilst coaching for Out to Swim, an LGBTQ+ swimming, water polo and synchro club which uses our pool as one of their training locations.

Groups such as Positive Strokes and Out to Swim are so important because “they are still a stigma for either HIV positive or LGBTQ and it is good to have a dedicated swim group where we can go and swim, knowing that we won't be discriminated against. People can wear whatever they like and not worry about getting comments or unwanted attention.”

Sport can be amazing for breaking down barriers, building confidence and creating communities. Emily is also a Coach for London frontrunners “an inclusive LGBTQ+ running and triathlon club, where we have a few trans athletes and we help them through some image issues.”

Empowering women to swim: “confidence is developed from skills”

“I started a programme called WSwim to empower women to be confident in water. I found there were many women who were too scared and self-conscious to join a swim club. It's not that they aren't good, they just didn't feel good enough. I think that confidence is developed from skills. The idea is that if you're a really good swimmer, it doesn't matter what you wear, how you look or what your size is, you're going to be confident in the water because you are good. I teach them how to tumble-turn, dive start and explain the lingo and the jargon of the Swim Club world, so that they feel good enough to join a massive Swim Club and compete. Some women stay on because it’s a safe space, one lady doesn’t feel comfortable swimming in public space because she has alopecia and a few ladies of African origin have had bad experiences with coaches telling them not to bother trying.”

Studying for a Masters in Biomechanics

Whilst doing all these amazing things, Emily is studying to complete her Masters in Biomechanics in Sport and Exercise. “I'm doing my dissertation on whether standard crank lengths are suitable for cyclists of average female height. When it comes to a bike, if you don't feel comfortable on it, and if the components don't fit, you won't be able to generate power. I found out that most of the physiology or biomechanics studies are based on men taller than five foot eight and so the components and frames are all made to that measurement. And so actually, bikes are only catered for a very, very small fraction of the world’s population, mainly white men, and are excluding most women and are huge groups from ethnic backgrounds which are shorter like Asians and South Americans. It’s like racing up a staircase against someone when your steps are twice as high.

What I’ve seen is that academic studies tend to test convenient samples - whoever is around on campus during the opening hours of the lab. Usually studies require a narrow range of people for the stats to work out. In reality, they would all pick a small group of average white guys for studies. When it comes to biomechanics though, you can’t just scale down the results and hope that they would fit the female populations. I'm hoping my study will eventually get published and then I have some leverage to go to the two major manufacturers of bike components and say, 'Look, this is what the study says'.” 

Emily is an inspiration and we are so privileged to have her as part of the Central YMCA family.