Sunday 11 December 2016

Hong Kong's Haughey cool on Irish switch despite political connections

Published 15/08/2016 | 02:30

Swimmer Siobhan Haughey was competing for Hong Kong in Rio. Photo: Getty Images
Swimmer Siobhan Haughey was competing for Hong Kong in Rio. Photo: Getty Images

Few people are as agile at throwing themselves on to sporting bandwagons as politicians.

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Charles Haughey's appearance at the Champs-Elysees in 1987 for a 'photo op' with Tour de France winner Stephen Roche was a classic of the genre.

So when his son Sean went on social media this week to congratulate a young Olympic swimmer with the family surname, it was tempting to brush it off as another act of political grandstanding.

But it wasn't.

Haughey was genuinely delighted because Hong Kong's teenage swim star Siobhan Haughey (18) is related to Ireland's most famous political dynasty.

She was born and reared in Hong Kong to a Chinese mother and Irish dad. Her father Darach is Sean's first cousin and a nephew of the late CJ.

The South China Morning Post quickly cottoned on to the link, reporting that their record-breaking teenager "is making waves in Ireland as they discover she is related to former prime minister".

The strap-line read: 'Could the land of her father move in with a 'transfer bid' ahead of Tokyo 2020?'

That is not as far-fetched as it sounds. When she reached the Olympic 200m freestyle semi-finals, Dublin swimming club Aer Lingus also posted messages of support because Haughey is one of their registered members.

Her older sister Aisling swims for Aer Lingus and won medals for them at the Irish Open in April. Her mother was present to support her and, seeing Irish-American Shane Ryan compete in that competition reportedly prompted her to ask Swim Ireland officials what would be needed if Siobhan ever wanted to swim for Ireland.

It would involve considerable sacrifice. Swimmers who have already competed internationally and want to switch allegiance have to live in their new country for a full 12 months to become eligible, and must also sit out international competition for that year.

Ireland's aquatic team in Rio includes two who have gone through that process: Philadelphia native Ryan (whose father is from Portarlington) and British-born diver Oliver Dingley (whose grandmother is from Cork).

"I could represent Ireland but I choose to represent Hong Kong because I was born there, I was raised there," Haughey said this week. "I feel connected to Hong Kong and I'm proud of representing Hong Kong.

"We looked at the rules and it says if I want to represent Ireland I have to live there for at least a year, and that's not possible for this Olympics."

Starred

But she did not rule it out in future.

A world junior champion in 2013 and Hong Kong's first Olympic swimmer in 64 years, she has already starred for her US college in her first year.

The inspirational sign over the University of Michigan's swimming pool door ('It's not every four years - it's every day') shows just how seriously they take swimming.

Haughey won five golds (three individual) for them at the prestigious 'Big Ten' Championships in February, where she also led the college to their first team title in 12 years.

She then finished fifth in the 100m freestyle at the US collegiate championships, a big result for a rookie.

Becoming a teenage Olympic semi-finalist has given her world-renowned college coach Mike Bottom another reason not to lose her.

"As long as she continues to take it one day at a time, and make improvements in technique and training, there's no limit for her," he has said.

He also described her as "one of the most positive people I've ever met, always got a smile on her face."

Haughey has revealed that she initially hated the sport as a toddler, saying: "I would scream and shout every time I would go to the pool but my parents thought swimming was a life skill."

Now she says she "loves the challenge."

The Hong Kong swimmer with the most famous surname in Ireland speaks several languages, including Cantonese, and admits that "people find my background a bit funny or strange, but I guess that's what makes me unique or special!"

Irish Independent

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