Head Above Water
Tatler Hong Kong|January 2022
After Hong Kong’s most successful year ever at the Olympic Games, swimmer Stephanie Au reflects on her sporting career, and the legacy she wants to leave for the next generation of athletes
Lauren James

The sun is bright but the water is cold on the late November afternoon of Stephanie Au Hoi-shun’s Tatler cover shoot. Nevertheless, she is upbeat and relaxed as she gamely gets in and out of the pool and swaps between one-piece swimsuits and high-fashion looks. There couldn’t be a better metaphor for Au’s career—transforming from athlete to model at the drop of a hat, having learnt to navigate the notoriously high-stakes worlds of both fashion and sport with grace and good humour. If she is gritting her teeth, there’s no sign of it.

Later, she sits on a rooftop, her legs clad in thigh-high Chanel boots and crossed beneath her, warming up in an oversized pink woolly cardigan. Around her neck is a heart-shaped Chanel choker, and she wears a fleecy lilac hat. Her damp hair hangs in waves around her face, which frequently breaks into wide smiles. She speaks softly yet precisely with both sportsmanlike diplomacy and childish wonder when discussing her past year.

At an Olympic Games that was remarkable, not least for its year-long postponement, Hong Kong sent its largest-ever cohort of athletes, most of whom were women, and brought back more medals than all other Olympic appearances combined. While the attention centered on Au’s teammate Siobhan Haughey, whose double silver made swimming the city’s most successful sport in Tokyo, Au wrote herself into the history books by becoming Hong Kong’s only four-time Olympic athlete, competing in the 100m backstroke and 100m freestyle relay.

“I don’t even know how to put it into words,” she says. “This year was the culmination of the efforts of previous Hong Kong athletes of the past 20 years to achieve something this incredible together. It takes a village to make that happen.”

At 29, Au is the oldest swimmer on the team and much of the media conversation post-Olympics focused on her retirement. The same invisible hourglass hangs over her career in fashion and entertainment: she has multiple luxury brands on her CV and has dabbled in acting. “When I was 26, I was told that was too old to become an actress,” she says. “But I’ve been doing the same thing since I was nine, so I still feel like I’m nine sometimes.”

Au’s start in swimming stemmed from her father joking that he would save her mother if the two were drowning. At nine, Au took to the water like a fish and was soon training five times a week. She broke her first Hong Kong record aged 13 and has set more than a dozen since. She made her Olympic debut aged 16 at Beijing in 2008, but only after she was flagbearer at the 2016 Rio Games did she became a household name: she had modelled before Rio, but the spotlight brought higher profile castings and launched her into unfamiliar surroundings.

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