Three years ago, Hong Kong swimmer Yvette Man-yi Kong was done with competition.
“I felt like I was being sucked into a black hole, and I felt sad about swimming, like it almost hurt to swim,” the 23-year-old tells CNN.
This year however, Yvette will be representing Hong Kong at the Rio Olympics — swimming the 100m and 200m breaststroke and the 4×100 medley relay — fulfilling a lifelong dream and conquering a depression that threatened to take her out of sport for good.
‘I was done with swimming’
“I’m very, very excited about the Rio Olympics,” Yvette tells CNN. “It will be my first Games, and my first time in South America. I’ve always wanted to visit Brazil.”
Getting to this point hasn’t been easy.
A former swimming prodigy when she was growing up in Hong Kong, Yvette began competing at age 11, and went on to win a string of titles during her teens.
At 18, she won a scholarship to study in the U.S. at the University of California, Berkeley.
But after early success, Yvette found it hard to maintain the winning streak.
“I hadn’t gotten any faster for six years, despite day after day of training, about 20 to 25 hours a week.”
The increasing pressure to perform and the lack of progress left her suffering from depression, and eventually, led to Yvette quitting the sport.
“It got to a point in 2013, that I was done with swimming. I thought swimming was over,” Yvette says.
“That’s when I realized that I really had a problem, like a huge mental block.”
‘Never give up on yourself’
Admitting something was wrong was the first step to her recovery.
“When I was at my lowest point, I sought professional help, and I think that made things a little brighter for me. The whole experience made me realize that it’s okay to acknowledge that I wasn’t okay.”
Seeking professional help also helped Yvette to identify what was causing the problem.
“I let a lot of people’s expectations burden me, my own expectations burden me,” she says. “I put a lot of focus on the outcome instead of the process. So I realized swimming was a lot more than performance, it’s about the memories I made, the relationships I built, and the skills I learned.”
When Yvette switched her mentality to focus on the process rather than the results, it helped to bring back her enthusiasm for swimming, and it was a strategy that ironically paid off in her performances.
“After taking care of my well-being, my performances went up eventually, alongside with it,” she says.
Yvette returned to competition and won a Hong Kong Sports Institute grant which enabled her to train at the University of Edinburgh, where she went professional this year.
Yvette is now swimming faster than she ever has before — a turnaround which she says holds a powerful message for other athletes going through similar issues.
“Never give up on yourselves,” she says. “When I went to Edinburgh, I was at this 1:13 level of performance in the 100m breaststroke. And all of a sudden, I went to 1:07, and I qualified for the Olympics.”
“That was beyond my expectations, it was beyond everyone’s expectations. And I think the reason why was because I kept trying.”
Yvette’s main aim now is to make her supporters back home proud.
“I can’t wait to represent Hong Kong,” she says.