From teammates to now business partners, Olympic swimmers Stephanie Au and Camille Cheng open up – with no holds barred – about their struggles with mental health and how they want to give back beyond the swimming pool.
The stars really aligned for us to bring together Stephanie Au and Camille Cheng for our cover shoot. Between intense training schedules and physiotherapy appointments, and with flights to catch and charity swims to prepare for, by a miracle we whisked Au and Cheng off to a remote beach location one sunny, breezy afternoon to photograph them. The next time we chat, it’s over a video call, as Cheng dials in from an altitude camp out in Arizona.
Earlier in the week, she’d just completed a 45km relay marathon swim with Splash Foundation around Hong Kong Island, which raised more than HK$3 million to benefit the charity’s free learn-to-swim programme. It was Cheng’s second round-Hong Kong relay, as she’s supported Splash since 2018. At that time, she was completing her master’s degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, finishing her thesis and looking into the psychological benefits of learning how to swim, while Splash Foundation co-founder Simon Holliday was running a programme teaching domestic helpers how to swim for free.
“I got in touch with Simon,” Cheng says, “and as part of my research I went to Splash classes and got to see the power of swimming, the community they built and the joy in all their faces. These women, mostly Filipino in their forties and fifties, had all grown up surrounded by water but never had the opportunity to learn how to swim. I saw them overcoming their anxiety of swimming and being able to swim a lap at the end of the programme, and to see what that meant to them.”
It was also a time when Cheng was struggling with her sport, and it reminded her that swimming was so much more than just rankings and times. We’re often led to believe that to become a full-time athlete, you have to really, really love the sport to devote your life to it. But like anything else in life, it’s never just about love. Au chips in: “People always ask me questions like, do you really love swimming? And it’s always a tough question to answer. Because it’s a love-hate relationship. Swimming has brought me so many great memories, it’s brought me so many life experiences and opportunities, and I’ve made friends for life because of it. But it’s also brought me a lot of traumatic moments. It’s a whole package.”
Both Cheng and Au began training as children. Cheng had fallen in love with the water, and when she moved to Beijing at the age of nine her school’s swimming coach, a Greek Olympian, saw her potential and started training her to swim competitively. Au has a funny story about how she first got into swimming. Her father had apparently joked that if she and her mother fell into the sea one day, he’d save her mum first. “I remember that because I was so offended,” Au says, laughing. “He said my mother was the love of his life. He meant it as a joke, but still!” But after she began, there was no turning back. Even before she qualified for her first Olympics in 2008, Au was already one of Hong Kong’s rising star swimmers with multiple local records under her belt.
Over the years, Au and Cheng’s paths crossed many times. Au waslso born and raised in Hong Kong, attending a local high school. A year younger, Cheng was also born in Hong Kong, the eldest of three daughters to a Taiwanese father and a French mother, before her family moved to Beijing. Both often took part in the same races when growing up, and both were accepted by the University of California, Berkeley, where they swam in the same team.
But they didn’t become friends until after graduation. In fact, Au says that before college, all she knew about Cheng was that she was a strong swimmer who wore a choker even during races.
“We had this mentorship programme on the team at Cal and our coach paired us up because we were both from Hong Kong and I was a year above Camille,” says Au.
“We were good teammates,” says Cheng. “All the international student athletes hung out together, but we didn’t become close until after we’d both moved back to Hong Kong and begun our professional careers as athletes.”
In fact, what neither fully appreciated during their college years was the struggles each was going through and the difficulties they faced in adapting to new school and living environments.
“My biggest struggle was the cultural shock,” says Au. “I didn’t even know this term before I went to Berkeley and I experienced it really badly. I guess I’d never spent significant time outside of Hong Kong. I had no relatives and no friends, and I had to speak English all the time. Everything was new. It was really difficult for me and I felt I didn’t have the skill set to define who I was. I felt I had to find this new Stephanie to present to people and I was just scrambling to survive going to school, going to practice, eat, sleep and repeat.”
“When I showed up as a freshman in 2011,” Cheng recalls about joining the UC Berkeley team, “I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into because I’d never trained with so many people who wanted to achieve such high goals.” Seeing her competition – teammates who’d already gone to multiple Olympics and won medals – left her with an imposter syndrome. “In my first year, I definitely struggled with being homesick,” she says. “Eventually I had a big mindset shift. If I had this opportunity to learn from the best, then why not take this opportunity to see how good I can be?”
In her final year, Cheng became joint captain on the team, but before graduating with a degree in psychology, she made the pivotal decision to take a year off, focus on swimming and give herself the chance of making it on to the Olympics team. In December 2015, she made the Olympic A time in 200-metre freestyle and the next year took part in the Games in Rio de Janeiro.
But their experiences at Cal and the professional careers they since embarked have forged a lifelong bond. From teammates to friends and now business partners, as they start up a mental health platform called Mind the Waves, Au and Cheng are like family. So who’s the big sister in their relationship? I ask.
“Camille,” Au says immediately. “I’m a struggle bus and I need help all the time. Camille is so capable and so hands-on when it comes to work. As teammates in swimming, we’re equals. Swimming is such an individual sport, so I do my own thing and she does her own thing and we respect each other. But since we started Mind the Waves half a year ago, it’s been such a different experience between us and I’m so thankful to be doing this together with Camille and I’m learning so many life skills from her. So, she’s my big sister.”
Laughing, Cheng cuts in. “That’s funny because I’d say Stephanie is the big sister. When I decided to move back to Hong Kong in 2016, my family was no longer living in Hong Kong. I remember Stephanie would always message me and ask if I wanted to hang out. She’s always saying, ‘Oh, it’s so hard that you’re here without your family.’ So I felt like, even though we didn’t see each other every day, I knew I could always count on her. It’s interesting because it probably comes from her experience of being in culture shock and homesick, so she was able to empathise with people going through the same thing. She definitely helped me when I first moved back.”
We always look up to athletes as being stronger, faster, and fitter. But while this may be true on the surface, what Au and Cheng demonstrate is that there’s so much going on behind the scenes that the world doesn’t see. “One big thing about athletes is that they have to be very positive,” says Au. “And that’s simply not true, because if you’ve never had any negativity and you’ve never experienced the hard times, then how do you know how to be positive? I feel like it’s because of all the bad times that I’ve been through, and all the experiences that I’ve had that gave me hope and taught me about positivity. It’s a big lesson to learn and it takes time.”
For Cheng, another big misconception is that athletes were just that – athletes. “There’s a lot of pressure to be positive and strong,” she says. “Sometimes I think people forget that athletes are also human. We have other things in our life that can be stressful and give us anxiety, which aren’t related to our sport.”
Cheng has dealt with her fair share of anxiety, and being confident about who she is and what she’s achieved is still, in her words, “a work in progress”. She’s also her own biggest critic. “I have to work on being kinder to myself,” she confesses. “Growing up, I wanted to prove myself and a big part of that was also to get my dad’s approval. He pushed me a lot to help me excel, with swimming and holding me to a high academic standard. Even when I got to go to the Olympics I didn’t have a lot of self-love or appreciation of myself.
“I remember doing this exercise in therapy about meeting this two-time Olympian who went to a great university and got her master’s and was doing all these things. It was really hard for me to be like, ‘Well yes, she’s pretty cool’,” says Cheng with a sheepish smile. “It’s so easy for me to be a cheerleader for other people. But when it comes to myself, I have a hard time.”
As for Au, she’s Hong Kong’s only four-time Olympian and is working towards number five at next year’s 2024 Paris Olympics. Her struggles pertain to her identity and her capabilities beyond the swimming pool. She says she still argues with her therapist over this, who constantly reminds her she’s good at other things besides swimming. “I think if I don’t swim well then people won’t like me or think I’m not worthy,” Au says. “But my therapist reminds me that it’s not about how fast I swim. Besides, one race at one point of time doesn’t paint the full picture either.”
Au has had to endure her fair share of online criticism over the years, which feeds her insecurities. “Critics,” she says, quietly. “I was quite affected when I first tried to do things outside of what we think athletes typically do. I got criticised so much. I could choose not to look at all the comments, but I did, and it’s hard to read how negative they were. A lot of them were saying the same thing. ‘Oh, you’re so ugly,’ or, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re too buff,’ even though I was really skinny at that time. They’d tell me to go back to the pool. Times have changed now but it was so tough at that time.”
Hardly anyone could be braver than Au then, who despite the backlash, continued to model, appear in ad campaigns and generally do things she enjoyed. “It still hurt me,” she says. “But it felt very surreal and I felt a bit numb towards it. It wasn’t going to stop me from doing what I wanted to do.”
Crying has helped. “My coach back in college once told me that crying is a sign of vulnerability and vulnerability is power,” Au reveals. “So I used to just cry it all out and let it go. When I’ve cried everything out, I get a bit of energy from doing that and I can go on believing in myself and to do what serves me.”
And today, that includes being one of Hong Kong’s longest-serving professional swimmers, an Olympian and a fashion model, as well as a mental-health advocate. Alongside Cheng and fellow Tokyo Olympic swimmer Jamie Yeung, Au launched Mind the Waves six months ago, to openly talk about their struggles and advocate mental wellbeing not just for athletes, but young people. And women. And anyone who has a hard time dealing with expectations and comparisons.
“I used to be made fun of for my shoulders; people would call me the Hulk,” says Cheng. “And when you’re young, that’s not really something you take well. But now I’m like, well, these are the shoulders that got me to the Olympics and I’m actually proud of that. Whether you’re an athlete or not, a lot of things people struggle with now in their mental health stem from when they were younger.
“So it’s not just about athletes and their mental health. It’s about young people – and where’s the support for them? Because if the things we hear from today’s youth are what we went through when we were young, it means nothing has really changed since our time. It’s really kind of where we were, like, hey we need to do something about it.”
The seed for Mind the Waves was planted in Tokyo in 2021, when the three swimmers had finished their races and were hanging out in the Olympic Village. “We were sitting by the water and just having a life chat,” recalls Cheng. “It was a very reflective period, because we were all kind of unsure of what’s after the Olympics. It’s such a big deal and it’s once every four years and we’re just thinking about what’s next. And at this point we talked about how we wanted to give back beyond just the swimming pool, and one of the ideas was to start a youth camp where we can create a space for them to come together and talk about the challenges we struggle with and still struggle with, and to give young people more opportunities to normalise these conversations and to find their community.”
Although they weren’t business-minded, a year later the three athletes still felt strongly that they were meant to do something together. “It got to the point where we were like, OK we can keep talking about this forever and never do anything, or we can start somewhere. Let’s start with something that can reach people,” Cheng says.
Mind the Waves started out as a series of podcasts that Au, Cheng and Yeung could record online, wherever in the world they happened to be, and talk about things that mattered to them and bring experts in to discuss topics the community was keen to hear about. “We had so many ideas but that was the first thing we decided to focus on, taking into consideration our own expectations and what we could manage,” says Cheng, who was aware that she and Au both have the Olympics on the horizon yet again – possibly their last.
Au brings up the fact that many people have asked her what she plans to do after she hangs up her cap for good. “I tell them about Mind the Waves and they’d say, mental health isn’t for everybody,” Au says incredulously. “But everyone should take care of their mental health.”
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For her, a huge personal goal at Mind the Waves would be to change the Cantonese speaking population’s perspective. Ever since they started, Au has realised there isn’t enough in the Chinese vocabulary to describe mental health. “I wanted to help the local community, because we know the culture. And by that, I mean we know how stigmatised the whole topic still is around mental health. One of the biggest challenges we came across was that it’s hard to translate a lot of the terminology. Even with emotions, there aren’t that many Cantonese words that can be used to describe how you’re really feeling.
“But we’re in a new era,” she adds. “Kids these days are willing to talk about it. We started a mentorship programme and when we met with our mentees, they already knew all about using the Apple Watch for tracking, they’re very aware about the causes of anxiety and how to practice breathing. Sometimes, I feel like I’m learning something from them too. And when we started doing conferences and events, we’d meet these kids with their parents – and they’ve told their parents about Mind the Waves and what we do. I realised that kids these days are so self-aware, which makes me feel as if we’re really on the right track.”