Fall 2011

Chasing the butterfly

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Tin Wai Siu is a linguistics major who is fluent in "butterfly."

Tin Wai “Tiffany” Siu is friendly, engaging and unassuming. But when this 5’5” Hong Kong native dons her swimsuit, cap and goggles, and steps up on the block, you don’t want to get in her way.

Siu, a junior linguistics major, won her first medal when she was 8. “I was competing in the 50-meter backstroke, and when I finished 25 I hit my head and turned awkwardly,” she laughs. She still took home a bronze.

At 13, she began training with a swim team and still holds the age 13–14 record in Hong Kong for the “fly” — a record she’s now chasing at Binghamton, held by assistant swim coach Yun Qu ’05.

“The butterfly is so beautiful when it’s done right,” says head coach Sean Clark. “But it’s one of those things where the experts make it look easy because they’ve put so much work into developing the right strengths.”

Siu’s strengths, Clark says, include one critical yet unteachable quality — a feel for the water. “She is exceptionally good at knowing how her body needs to interact with the water. At some level she can just do what we ask her to do — swim faster. But she also has such command of her physical skills that she can make the minor adjustments. That’s true athleticism, when you can control your body at the minute level.”

As a sophomore Siu took home gold, silver and bronze medals at the America East Championship in the 200-yard butterfly, 400 individual medley and 500 freestyle, respectively. This summer she was invited to the World University Games in Shenzhen, China. “My first event, I got really nervous. It was a lot of pressure, and I didn’t do as well as I hoped,” she says. “But I learned a lot from the experience, and it was a great chance to participate in a big game with world-class swimmers.”

While Siu feels at home now, the transition hasn’t been without its hiccups. In addition to learning a new culture, she had to get used to swimming in a shorter pool. NCAA pools are half the length of the Olympic-size pool she was used to. “There are more turns, and the mechanics of the turn are incredibly important in the final outcome,” Clark explains. “To see her gain full control over her environment and be able to plan and attack has been really exciting.”

Like many athletes, Siu has her rituals. A half-hour before each race, she eats her “magical food” — chocolate and bananas — an energy trick she learned from her mom.

Her success, though, is anything but magic. She practices close to 20 hours a week: three mornings, plus a couple of hours every afternoon and sometimes a little extra on her own.

This year, Siu aims to break the 2-minute barrier in the butterfly, a mark she narrowly missed with her 2:01 win at the America East Championship. And her eye is on the NCAA championships and the Olympics next year. “She loves this sport, and it’s up to us to stay ahead of her,” Clark says. “She has a gritty determination that is tough to equal.”

–By Ashley Smith