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Defying the odds: The story of Hong Kong’s visually impaired bowling athlete

On a clear Wednesday evening in Fo Tan everything is calm and quiet. Most workers have already returned home after a day of tiring work. But the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI), on the eastern side of town, is still bustling with activity. Athletes, professional and amateur, are undertaking their regular training sessions.

At the far corner of the campus lies the tenpin bowling centre, where one sportsman catches my attention. He is wearing a Hong Kong National Team jersey. As I walk into the bowling alley, he rubs a bowling ball with a towel and prepares for a delivery.

Gripping the ball in his fingers, he then accelerates towards the foul line and swings the ball towards the pins. Just like any other player.

Cheung Hoi-tung asian paralympics

Cheung participated in Incheon 2014 Asian Para Games. Photo: Hong Kong Paralympic Committee.

But there is one thing that makes him unique. He is visually impaired.

Cheung Hoi-tung, 27, is a bowling athlete who has represented Hong Kong in numerous international Paralympics tournaments.

“I am a bowling player who suffers from a medical condition called albinism,” he says. “That’s why I have experienced vision loss.”

“When I stand on the bowling lane and look at the pins, I can only see a blurred image. Normally people can see the ten pins neatly arranged. But not me,” he adds.

For most people, a good bowling player would require very good eyesight. However, as Cheung illustrates, having visual problems does not necessarily prevent an athlete from playing the sport professionally.

“Sorry for being blunt – but how can you play bowling if you cannot see properly?” I asked.

“We usually rely on the information shown on screen on top of each lane, as well as on our coaches’ instructions,” Cheung said.

“Some of my friends – who are also visually impaired – lost interest in bowling because they think it is less fun when you cannot see the pins clearly,” Cheung added. “But for me, I think it is really cool to hear the ‘boom’ sound when the pins are knocked down.”

Cheung Hoi-tung

Cheung Hoi-tung. Photo: Hong Kong Paralympic Committee.

And that is what kept him motivated. After his first encounter with bowling a decade ago, Cheung began practicing regularly at the HKSI in 2009. Before entering tournaments, he would appear at the bowling alley as frequently as three times a week. Sessions would usually last for three hours from 7pm to 10pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. That is in addition to a weekly muscle training session on Sunday.

However, like many other Paralympic athletes in Hong Kong, Cheung is not a full-time athlete and still has a day job. He currently works at the Hong Kong Society for the Blind.

“It is really hard for us to become full-time athletes – even able-bodied athletes face a lot of difficulties in turning full-time,” Cheung says. “Even though we do receive funding from the government, the amount is insufficient to cover all our daily expenses.”

But with devotion and hard training, Cheung soon earned his first ticket to represent Hong Kong. His debut competition was the 2011 IBSA Tenpin World Championships in Kuala Lumpur.

In Paralympics bowling, all visually impaired athletes are classified into three categories. The TPB1 category is for athletes who can barely see anything, TBP2 is for those with less visual impairment, whereas TPB3 is for those with the least visual loss. Cheung participated in the TPB3 category.

“When it was announced that I would become a member of the Paralympics Team for the Asian Games, I really felt that it was an honour,” he recalls. “At the end of the day, how many times can a person attend such a big tournament in his or her life?”

“I remembered that when I first stepped into the arena, I didn’t even know what it meant to be nervous. What I only knew was to defy the odds and to do my best.”

Despite the result, Cheung was determined to further improve himself.

“There’s no reason for me to give up because of one poor performance,” he says. “If I did, I would forfeit the chance to improve. This is just not worth it.”

His next chance would come very soon. In 2012, he attended the IBSA Asian Tenpin Bowling Championships in Seoul. He also had the chance to represent Hong Kong in the 2013 APC Para Tenpin Bowling Open Championships, as well as the 2014 Asian Para Games.

In 2015, he also appeared at the IBSA World Games in the Korean capital, scoring number four in overall performance. He was just shy of his first medal.

While Cheung pins his medal hopes on the upcoming Warsaw IBSA Tenpin Bowling World Championships in August, he agrees that more attention should be paid towards Paralympic athletes in the city.

Cheung Hoi-tung paralympics

The Hong Kong Paralympic Day in late-May. Photo: Hong Kong Paralympic Committee.

The Hong Kong Paralympic Committee later explains to me that it has organised new initiatives to engage the public with disabled athletes.

“We organised the first Hong Kong Paralympic Day at the HKSI in May,” explains Olivia Lam, programme officer of the committee. “Participants were able to try out different sports as if they were disabled. For example, we had a section where they could try out bowling from a wheelchair.”

More than 1,000 participants attended the event, according to the committee.

Besides engaging with the public, Cheung also believes that young people with disabilities should not abandon their dreams of excelling in sports. “I think they should try out different things to broaden their horizons and to gain new experiences,” he says.

“For me, if I had not decided to start practice bowling, I would not have had so many wonderful memories out there,” he adds.

Cheung Hoi-tung bowling

Cheung practicing at the bowling alley inside the Hong Kong Sports Institute. Photo: Eric Cheung/HKFP.

As I leave the Hong Kong Sports Institute after the interview, Cheung resumes his vigorous training session and says he will stay until at least 10pm. He will have to report to work early next morning, just like any other white-collar worker in the city.

Perseverance, perhaps, is what motivates him to overcome the obstacles. The lack of a clear vision has not prevented him from seeing a bright future.

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Defying the odds: The story of Hong Kong's visually impaired bowling athlete