Like a wave washing over her, soaking her to the core, an overwhelming sense of pride filled Stephanie Au.
The world had come together to witness this single event. Stepping onto the starting platform, Au could hear the screams of her compatriots cheering for Hong Kong — cheering for her.
At just 16 years old, Au was thrust onto one of the world’s biggest stages.
As the youngest member of the Hong Kong swim team, Au went to the 2008 Beijing Olympics on a pedestal. Being the youngest swimmer and growing up in the same country as the Games, Au was a phenomenon.
“The media was going crazy over me, and I had never gotten interviewed before the Beijing Olympic games,” Au says. “People just started coming and asking me questions, and I had no idea how to respond.”
Instead of focusing on the immensity of the moment, Au tried to focus on what she was trained to do: just swim. But competing with the likes of 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin was more than a little nerve-wracking.
Au fell short of the podium, only making it past the first round of the three preliminary events she swam in — the 200-, 400- and 800-freestyle.
Still, the Olympics were a turning point in Au’s career.
“(The Beijing Olympics) was my first time seeing so many different world-class people doing such great things, and I was like, ‘Whoa. Wait a minute. I could actually be one of them too,’ ” Au says.
At such a young age, Au had already reached a place in her career most swimmers only dream about, but she was still determined to improve. She just needed a place to do that.
Au had never been to the United States before, but the Hong Kong school system is not set up to allow university students to also pursue athletics. Au wanted to do both. So she chose Cal as her home for the next four years.
When Au raced in the Olympics, she didn’t share the spotlight. There was only one podium for the winners.
Having only trained with her personal coach, Au was out of her element when it came to the team-oriented nature of college swimming.
“I think at the start of her career here she didn’t really know what it meant to be a part of the team,” says associate head coach Kristen Cunnane.
Au and her Cal teammates were all in the same boat. They were all in the same age group and accustomed to the pressures that came with being at the top of the food chain.
Au competed with not only teammates but also her friends — people she could relate to and who understood the importance of swimming in her life. Prior to coming to UC Berkeley, she was only responsible for her own results and not those of her comrades. But when she became a part of the Cal team, she found that her competitive nature matched that of her teammates, and they were able to push one another to get the team and themselves to where they wanted to be.
The solidarity Au formed with her teammates helped propel her career at Cal to a new level. Since coming to UC Berkeley, Au has placed in the top 10 for three straight years in the Pac-12 Championships. In 2011, she finished ninth in the 200-back at the NCAA championships. She earned honorable mention All-American status for her 13th-place finish at the 2012 NCAA tournament in the 100-yard back. Au placed 12th in the same event for the following year at the NCAAs.
“(Being at Cal) has changed me for the better,” Au says. “Looking at things differently, I do think a lot of the things I learned on the Cal swimming team can be applied to my normal lifestyle. Not everyone has to be your enemy. Even if you are competing and are fighting for the same thing, there’s room for both of you to be pushing each other.”
Learning the dynamics of a team changed Au’s perspective, and by the time she headed to the 2012 London Olympics, she had a different view on swimming altogether.
But in London, there was pressure of improving upon her Olympic debut. Au swam in both the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke but finished near the bottom in both. Falling short of the podium yet again, Au returned to Berkeley for her junior season.
At the age of 21, the 2016 Rio Olympics are a viable option for Au.
Learning how to be a part of a team, of something bigger than herself, has fused with her competitive nature to allow for a more open-minded view on swimming.
“Swimming is an individual event, but we still do it as a team,” Au says. “(Head coach) Teri McKeever says to us all the time that it looks so easy and normal to us that we’re doing this, but it’s actually extraordinary. I honestly would be so happy if more of my friends make (the 2016 Olympics) than if I made it.”
For now, Au is relishing her last few months as a Bear and preparing with her team for the Pac-12 and NCAA championships. After graduating, Au will go back to training for the next Olympic games. With her new mindset, and without having to split her time between studies and training, Au is expecting to have her best showing yet at what will hopefully be her third Olympic appearance.
And when the 2016 Rio Olympics come around, she’ll have the chance to be in that international spotlight again. And this time, more of her friends will be by her side — albeit representing different countries, but really, they’re all just one and the same.
“Everything that I do, and everything that I have has to do with swimming,” Au says. “(Swimming) does connect everyone together. We all came from so far away, but we ended up here.”
Alicia Fong covers women’s swim. Contact her at [email protected]
A previous version of this article misspelled Cal women’s swimming coach Teri McKeever’s name.