Edgar Cheung, Hong Kong Olympic golden boy, opens up about his journey from shy teenager to winning a gold medal in fencing at the recent 2020 Tokyo games
How many years must a fencer train before he can call himself an Olympic champion?
Edgar Cheung Ka-long, Hong Kong’s individual foil champion at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games this summer, would know.
The 24-year-old beat Daniele Garozzo, the defending Olympic champion from Italy, 15-11 in a thrilling final at Makuhari Messe, in Chiba city, on the outskirts of Tokyo, to become only the second Hong Kong athlete in history to stand atop the Olympic medals podium. The first was windsurfer Lee Lai-shan, who claimed gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, in the United States.
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Fencing was not Cheung’s first sport, and at 1.93 metres (6ft, 3 inches) Hong Kong’s Olympic hero has often been mistaken for a basketball player ” and with good reason.
“My parents were both basketball players, so it was only natural I followed in their footsteps during my early years,” says Cheung. “My father was a member of the A1 Division championship team in 1987, while my mother played at international level for the Hong Kong junior representative team and also won the women’s A1 Division championship.”
In fact, it was not until Cheung was about 10 years old that an unexpected opportunity in fencing presented itself during the summer holidays.
“All the basketball classes were suspended during the long holidays when I was probably in Primary Four,” he recalls. “My father asked if I would be interested in taking a fencing course so that I could get some exercise and kill some time during the break. I thought about it for a while before saying yes.”
But it was a strange experience for the future Olympic champion, as Cheung never actually picked up a weapon during the course.
“I still remember it was a summer course organised by the Hong Kong Fencing Association and as beginners with little or no experience at all, we were told to practice footwork but that was all, for the duration of the course. Towards the end of the programme, the teacher asked if anybody would be interested in taking up a weapon and giving it a try. Many of my enthusiastic classmates raised their hands, but I was too shy to do it in front of a group of people.
“Even today, I would still consider myself an introvert. I’m not used to presenting myself during public appearances. But, of course, fencing competitions are another matter.
“It was fortunate that I didn’t give up at that moment. I found the sport quite interesting during that first training course and I wanted to keep learning. Later, I finished third in an inter-primary school competition and ever since then, I’ve loved that feeling of winning. I asked my parents if I could keep training in fencing and develop it as my sport.”
Since his early days, Cheung has always enjoyed a height advantage. That, coupled with his left-handed fencing style, means he can attack from unusual angles to score points.
In 2014, Cheung surged to prominence in inter-national competition when the then 17-year-old clinched four gold medals at the Asian Youth Championships in Jordan, winning at both the junior and cadet individual levels, as well as the team competition for Hong Kong in both events.
That was also the year he decided to go full time at the Sports Institute in Fo Tan, and quit school to focus on a professional sporting career.
“I have to thank my parents for the decision as they gave me their full support to pursue my sporting career, which is quite unusual in Hong Kong, where most parents make their children’s studies the priority,” he says. “Perhaps, because of their own background as basketball players, they have a full understanding of what it takes to become a professional athlete. In fact, they have given me a lot of support throughout the years, especially with the psychological side of being an athlete. They know exactly how an athlete feels and works.”
His father, Allan Cheung, an engineering project manager, said they agreed to allow their son a two-year trial period to pursue fencing but that if Edgar could not sustain good results, he would return to academia.
Immediately after going full time at the Sports Institute, however, Cheung was selected to represent Hong Kong at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, where the team claimed bronze.
Two years later, Cheung made his Olympic debut at the 2016 Rio Games after clinching an individual spot through regional qualification. He and Vivian Kong Man-wai, in the women’s epee, became the first two Hong Kong fencers to reach the round of 16 at the Olympic Games.
In 2017, his last year as a junior, Cheung was crowned the junior world champion in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, after beating Toshiya Saito of Japan.
At the 2018 Asian Games, Cheung helped Hong Kong to a silver medal in the team foil, along with teammates Ryan Choi Chun-yin and Yeung Chi-ka. They were beaten by South Korea in the final. Teammate Nicholas Choi had been injured winning a silver medal in the individual event three days earlier and was unavailable for the team competition ” which is often given as a reason for Hong Kong falling narrowly short.
Upon completion of the Asian Games, Hong Kong kicked off their qualification campaign for the Tokyo Olympics, and after capturing a team bronze medal at the World Cup series in Cairo, Egypt, in February 2020, a Hong Kong fencing team qualified to compete at the Olympics for the first time in the sport’s history.
With the Covid-19 pandemic beginning to hit Hong Kong and the rest of the world around that time, Cheung says the team endured one of their most difficult periods in the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics.
“Looking back, the training was very hard in preparation for the Olympic Games,” says Cheung, “but we had no complaints as we knew this was what we had to go through to get results in such a big event.
“What we found to be the most difficult part was having to play a waiting game. At that time we had no idea if the Tokyo Olympics would even go ahead, even after they had been pushed back for a year to the summer of 2021. We could not go overseas to train as we used to before. We could only stay at the Sports Institute, which was adopting a closed camp environment.
“We kept on training without knowing when our next event would be. Sometimes it was quite demoralising and discouraging because you did not know if all your effort was in vain as the event might not even happen. There were so many uncertainties.”
The team competed at their first and only competition in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics in March 2021, when they travelled to Doha for the Grand Prix, where Ryan Choi came fifth and Cheung finished 10th.
In Tokyo, Choi was defeated in the round of 16 while Cheung went all the way. His incredible run to gold included a scarcely believable dismantling of the world No 1, Alessio Foconi, in the last-16, before a nail-biting 15-14 victory over Kirill Borodachev of Russia in the quarter-finals on the way to the final, where he defeated Italian rival Garozzo for the gold.
“I am very happy to have won the gold medal on the biggest possible sporting stage, this is the dream of every athlete,” Cheung says. “But more importantly the gold medal has made a great impact in society, ensuring more Hong Kong people know about fencing and more youngsters are willing to take up the sport and help strengthen our feeder system.
“Our sport would have no future without young fencers coming through the ranks to take up the baton, and we look forward to more success in fencing.”
The Olympic gold medal triumph, however, will not be the final destination for Cheung, who feels he has a lot more to give in the sport.
“I still have plenty more to offer to the sport and I really want to,” he says. “The next target is the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou. We won two silver medals at the 2018 Games in Jakarta and can now look forward to a better result next year.
“We can certainly achieve that as we have a strong team now and are ranked first in Asia. There is a strong prospect of success for us. Also, the World Championships are on the horizon. My best performance so far in the Worlds was 16th place and I want to win a medal for Hong Kong at the 2022 event.
“The 2024 Paris Olympics are not too far away after the delayed Tokyo Games. I will be the defending champion in Paris, but there won’t be any pressure on me. For me, the Olympics is just like any other tournament in Hong Kong or anywhere else, where any fencer can win or lose.
“I mean, before the Tokyo Games, would you have expected a fencer from Hong Kong could become the Olympic champion?”
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.
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