The Olympian abandoned by his beloved mum aged six... for his own good

·5-min read

Watch: The Olympian abandoned by his beloved mum aged six... for his own good

This interview is part of the exclusive Yahoo series 'How To Raise An Olympian', in which we speak to Olympic stars and their parents to get a unique insight into what it takes to raise an elite athlete. Watch the full interview above - and for more see the links at the bottom of the page.

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Training up an athlete is no easy task, let alone an Olympian. Behind the glorious scenes of 'Stone' Shek Wai-hung’s consecutive Asian Games golds, were blood, sweat, tears, countless hours of practices, and of course, the all-supportive “Tiger Mum”, Mrs. Shek.

Like many other athletes, Shek’s road to excellence was bumpy as ever. His maiden Olympics appearance in 2012 London was less than satisfactory, to say the least, as the Hong Kong-born gymnast failed to make it through the qualification phase. Such disappointment was wiped out by an Asian Games gold in vault, Hong Kong’s first ever gymnastics gold at the continental multi-sport event, a little more than two years later, in Incheon, South Korea.

Shek Wai-hung is a Hong Kong artistic gymnast. He is also the current Asian Games champion on vault.
Shek Wai-hung is a Hong Kong artistic gymnast. He is also the current Asian Games champion on vault.

An untimely injury deprived Stone Shek of his second Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, in 2016, but he again bounced back in the next Asian Games, this time in Jakarta in 2018. The second Asian Games gold appeared to have finally got the monkey off his back, as Shek continued to shine on various stages. There onwards, he snatched back-to-back World Challenge Cup golds in just one week in 2019, before booking his ticket to the Olympic Games in Tokyo later that year.

Looking back, Shek was probably destined to be a gymnast. 

Mrs. Shek recalls that her then five-year-old son was really active, “He was not naughty, but he was always jumping around, and fond of doing handstands particularly, even at the shopping malls,” she tells Yahoo News Hong Kong in an exclusive interview. Watching those gymnasts flying in the air on television was all it needed to sow the seeds in Shek’s heart. Fascinated by those gorgeous moves, Shek Wai-hung told his mum he would like to do gymnastics. It opened the door to a whole new world for him.

At a national competition in China, Shek’s poor landing led to an injury to the sixth and seventh segments of his spinal cord and left a scar behind his neck.
At a national competition in China, Shek’s poor landing led to an injury to the sixth and seventh segments of his spinal cord and left a scar behind his neck.

And Mrs. Shek, herself being a former track and field athlete, helped paved the way for Wai-hung’s career. She took him to a training facility in Guangzhou, China one summer. “The trainings were tough, I was afraid he would not want to go, so I pretended I was taking him to grocery shopping,” she admits. “After dropping him off at the gymnasium, I even told him I would pick him up afterwards.”

That night, Shek realised he was left behind. 

The six-year-old boy called home from a telephone booth, tears in his eyes, asking if mum had abandoned him. Mrs. Shek recalls that she had to hold back her tears and urged him to practice hard. “You can say she is a “Tiger Mum”, she can be tough and ruthless, and always seems to be strict,” says Shek. “But in reality, her heart is breaking, and I know it.” 

Mother and son reunited after one full month, and the memories of being kept in the dark left no sour taste in Shek’s mouth. On the contrary, it helped him grow independent.

Returning to the Olympic Games after nine years, Shek is aiming high by performing two jumps with the highest difficulty value
Returning to the Olympic Games after nine years, Shek is aiming high by performing two jumps with the highest difficulty value

Then came the accident, and the scars, in 2006. At a national competition in Kunming, China, Shek’s poor landing led to an injury to the sixth and seventh segments of his spinal cord, which kept him in bed for the next three weeks, before he returned to Hong Kong for surgery. Horrified and worried, the entire family were against Stone Shek continuing to pursue his career as a gymnast upon recovery. Wai-hung, the youngest Shek in the family, would kneel and beg for their consents. Imagine the inner suffering of a loving and caring mother. Mrs. Shek cannot hold back anymore recalling the scene that happened 15 years ago, “I remember telling him, I would rather kneel before him and ask him not to continue.”

Mrs. Shek, herself being a former track and field athlete, helped paved the way for Wai-hung’s career.
Mrs. Shek, herself being a former track and field athlete, helped paved the way for Wai-hung’s career.

Stone Shek eventually won over his mum, who supported him all the way through and accompanied him to the gymnasium every day, in those early post-recovery days. While witnessing her son regain his form through repetitive training helped to sooth Mrs. Shek’s doubts, that huge scar on the back of Shek’s neck remained a vivid reminder of those sadness, tears, and torment. 

Stone returned to action, began to shine on the international stage and was rewarded the ticket to the London 2012 Olympics, but that experience was nothing but a huge disappointment for the 21-year-old debutant. Failing to make it through the qualification stage reduced Shek to tears, and he apologised to his mum, only for Mrs. Shek, who was watching from the stands, to comfort him in return, “As a mum, your health and safety are always my priorities, there is always the next Olympics.” The power of love.

“I was kept in the dark before mum dropped me off at a Guangzhou training camp. That decision helped made me an Olympian 15 years later, at the age of 21.”
“I was kept in the dark before mum dropped me off at a Guangzhou training camp. That decision helped made me an Olympian 15 years later, at the age of 21.”

The next Olympics though, turned out to be an eight-year wait, as Shek had to endure more Olympics heartbreak after failing to qualify for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, due to an injury. Heading to Tokyo, the time seems right for Shek now, a podium finish looks tangible, too. But for Mrs. Shek, who can only watch from the television this time around due to COVID-19 safety measures imposed by the Tokyo Olympics Organising Committee, knowing that her beloved son can perform to his standard, and finish those moves safely, are all that matters.

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