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Women in our Community, Part 5: Meet Ela Howard of WISE (Women in Sport Empowered)

Ela is from everywhere – she was born in Sri Lanka, spent her childhood growing up around Asia, Russia and Dubai and her teenage years in Finland. She went to university in England and moved to Hong Kong last year.

Ela’s Welsh mother and French father are teachers and taught in international schools around the world, so Ela got to actually live her geography class – travelling the globe and experiencing the world and its different cultures, what an experience!

It turns out that Ela and I actually went to the same university – Oxford Brookes in England  – although as Ela is just 23 years old, she came some years after me (I’m not going to say how many years later………). Ela studied Sports Coaching and Business and after graduating she wasn’t quite sure what was next for her. So, she strapped on her backpack and hit the road, spending a few months backpacking around China. Coming back to the UK, she was looking around for new opportunities and came across an advertised job in Hong Kong as an Outdoor Instructor at Treasure Island in Pui O. So she applied for it and here she is. She has been here for almost a year now, living in Pui O on Lantau.

At Treasure Island Ela is an Outdoor Instructor – running school camps, summer camps, youth leader training programmes and family adventure sessions . She coaches kids in surfing, kayaking, paddle boarding, gorging, raft building and coasteering.  While the instructors seek to encourage a sense of adventure, they also teach kids life skills, encourage empowerment and responsibility and teach the kids about the habitat and how to take care of it:

http://www.treasureislandhk.com/

The reason I wanted to meet with Ela though, was that I wanted to hear about her work with WISEHK (Women in Sports Empowered HK). 

What is WISEHK?

WISEHK is a non-profit which was founded by Hong Kong lady Alicia Lui in 2017 when she came back to Hong Kong after living abroad. Alicia was inspired through working with the Lean In Circle group during her time living in Beijing. She later attended a talk in London by Sporting Edge looking at transferrable skills to sports for women. Back in Hong Kong, Alicia wanted to do something like this but could not find any similar organisation, so she decided to found her own and so WISEHK was born

WISEHK champions sports for women and girls in Hong Kong, seeking to use sports as a tool to empower and build confidence in girls.

They also aspire to bridge the gap where girls commonly often give up on their sports activities when they leave school.

In addition to this, WISEHK seeks to open discussions with girls about interpersonal skills in terms of leadership.

The non-profit is completely volunteer led with about 10 volunteers working for the organization on a regular basis. There is a further tranche of volunteers that help out volunteering as coaches as well as various clubs who offer the use of their pitches and facilities for events.

I asked Ela what drew her to WISEHK and she told me that she followed RUN (Rebuild Unite Nurture – a Hong Kong-based charity that rehabilitates vulnerable refugees through running and beyond) and there she saw a link to WISE which she clicked on and read about what they do.

“It was everything that I’m about – empowering girls and sport. I arranged to meet with Alicia for a chat –  she’s so passionate about it and I was completely in!’

WISEHK Programmes

The valuable initiatives undertaken by WISEHK include:

  1. Panel Discussions

These are open to anyone to attend. Upcoming planned panels include a discussion on Sports Marketing focusing on coverage of girls’ sports in the media. Another planned panel will focus on health and body image.

Many of their panels have been aimed at women in the corporate world, showing them how the skills they get from sport like teamwork, management and confidence can be transferrable to their careers.

2. Sports Leadership

WISEHK have an upcoming Sports Leadership programme to mentor students in how to coach and take a leadership role in sport.

3. Mother and Daughter Days

However, my absolute favourite initiative undertaken by WISEHK is their Mother and Daughter Sports Days. These are held approximately every 2 months where coaches are brought in to work with mothers and daughters in a particular sport. Previous sessions have included dodgeball, cricket and handball with the next session on football scheduled for Sunday 30thJune at AIA Vitality Park (beside the Observation Wheel).  This is a FREE event.

For tickets: 

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/wise-start-with-sports-mothers-and-daughters-sports-day-30-june-2019-tickets-60191645833

To hear about future Mother and Daughter sports days, stay tuned to their Facebook page.

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this event – a great opportunity for some fun mother and daughter bonding, doing a healthy activity where the daughters get to see their mothers as role models. What a great idea!

Ela the Journalist

Ela’s primary role with WISEHK is that she interviews female women athletes in Hong Kong as well as mothers and daughters to share their sporting stories.

I asked Ela to tell me about her favourite interview but it proved hard to choose just one. Most memorable for her were:

  • Edie Hu who swam the Hong Kong 360 in 12 hours 37 mins, making her the 2nd fastest ever competitor (including the male competitors). Edie completed the gruelling 45km swim around Hong Kong on behalf of the charity Splash which teaches domestic helpers and underprivileged children to swim. http://wisewomenhk.com/edie-hu/
  • Mum and Daughter Clara and Charleen Wong – 13 year old Charleen is an avid ice hockey player, training with the boys and playing in a league with much older and bigger girls. Mum Clara is super supportive and there at every game cheering her daughter on. Ela was struck by how confident Charleen is and unphased by playing such a physical sport with boys.   http://wisewomenhk.com/charleen-and-clara-wong/
  • Agnes Tse Wing-Kiu –  who balanced her career as a Cathay Pacific air hostess with her dream of training as a professional rugby player, achieving her dream playing for the Hong Kong 7’s team  http://wisewomenhk.com/agnes-tse/

If you have a sports related story to share, then you can contact Ela through the WISEHK Facebook page.

I was curious to know if Ela could interview any sportsperson in the world, who it would be and she immediately answered without thinking that it would be Hope Solo of the USA football team. Ela is a big fan of Hope who she thinks has really helped put USA women’s football on the map as well as igniting the conversation again about equal pay for female athletes. Ela likes that Hope presents herself neither in a feminine or masculine athletic way but rather simply as an athlete.

I wanted to know what has been Ela’s most rewarding moment working with WISEHK so far. She told me how proud she was when More Chaos (a Hong Kong sports magazine) picked up and posted one of her articles but the Mother and daughter sports days are a personal favourite of hers of the programmes run by WISEHK

“those tiny little girls having fun playing dodgeball with their Mums – it’s just so cute and the Mums are so grateful for what we are trying to do’

What we get from Sport

I wondered what Mums see their daughters as getting from participating in sport. Ela thinks that they learn:

“perseverance, self-confidence, teamwork and also to deal with failure – the ability to pick yourself up, shake it off and keep trying. This is valuable preparation for the real world where they might not be successful in that job interview because someone else was simply better than them’

I asked Ela if she thinks that sport helped her to navigate her way through school and later university and she said that certainly yes it did in her small school in Finland where she was given a lot of opportunities to help organise sports tournaments and get involved with coaching. This is where she decided that she wanted to coach sports.

However, later in university, she found that sport was more about a negative social scene, embracing binge drinking culture and found herself distancing herself from this scene as, for her, sport was about being healthy and taking care of yourself.

There’s a great video on the WISEHK website called “What does sport mean to you?” (http://wisewomenhk.com/). 

The phrases that jumped out at me from the ladies in this video were:

  • “Sport gives me confidence”
  • “Now I think ‘ – I  can do that, that’s me”
  • “It empowers me”
  • When I play sport, it reminds me of me before I had babies”
  • “Wherever I play hockey is where I meet my best friends”

I particularly identified with “When I play sport it reminds me of me before I had babies.” I am one of those ladies who stopped playing sport when I left school – university came and all its distractions, followed by career and then babies. As a Mum of 2 young kids, I find that the role of mother can take you over. Much as I love and adore my kids, I found that I had forgotten the person that I used to be before my girls came along.

After I moved to Hong Kong, with my girls then both in school, I found I had a window of time open for “me” while they were at school. I decided I wanted to get fit and healthy and set myself a goal of completing the Couch to 5km Challenge (it’s an App). I am not a natural athlete and, in fact, I was the kid in school that would frequently try to come up with excuses to try and get out of doing P.E.   – the annual sports day at school was my least favourite day of the year. So, you can see that I was the perfect subject for the Couch to 5km Challenge!

I won’t say I particularly enjoyed the challenge but I am a stubborn lady and would not let myself give up. After 6 weeks I reached my 5km goal ,much to my satisfaction but then I started to  think – well if I could do 5km then I could do 10km.

I always find a goal to work towards motivating so I decided that I would register for the Discovery Bay 10km race later that year. Having decided this, I could not let myself fail and end of 2017 I ran my first ever race completing the 10 km course. I was so proud of myself and then decided if I could do 10km then I could do a half marathon (21km)…..

I registered myself for the Clontarf half marathon in Dublin which would fall during my summer visit back to Ireland. I did not factor in that I would be doing the latter part of my training during the humid Hong Kong summer – running 20km in 39 degrees is quite an experience…….

I completed the Clontarf half marathon that summer. I was so so proud of myself – my school PE teacher would not have been able to equate me now with the kid in school that dreaded PE class!

A friend in Discovery Bay then suggested that I join her in the Tiger’s Head race which is a 16km trail race that started in Mui Wo, climbed up Tiger’s Head and then back to Mui Wo again – this was a toughie (I will neither confirm or deny that during the race, I fell off a rock and had to be helped out of the very large rockpool underneath and finish the last 4km with my trainers full of water….) but again what a sense of achievement I felt afterwards. 

I was struggling, following our relocation to Hong Kong to adapt from being a career lady to a stay at home mum and running gave me a sense of “me” again where I was just me and not only a mother. This was something just for me and I go so much from it both in terms of physical fitness and mental health, so I completely relate to the lady in the video that said, “When I play sport it reminds me of me before I had babies.”

The Drop Off

As to why there is a drop off in girls playing sport, when it comes to their teenage years, Ela thinks that it is a question of priorities.

‘Teenagers are under a lot of pressure when it comes to school and their education and they struggle to find time in their busy schedules for sport. The sad irony, of course, is that sport would give them that stress relieving opportunity that they desperately need’.

Also, Ela thinks that teenagers and women tend to either fall into the social side of sport or at the super elite level – there is a gap in between as girls often drop out if they do not seem themselves improving and progressing. 

I interviewed a group of 10 year old girls recently on my blog – I was trying to understand when and how gender stereotyping begins. Two of the girls were keen footballers but expressed frustration because they were not as strong or fast as the boys their age. I asked Ela what her advice to these girls would be to help them avoid being part of the drop off rate

“Keep going. I was the only girl in my school in Finland playing football, so I understand that frustration. I knew I wasn’t the best but over time I gained respect from those boys – through perseverance I was accepted’

Find Out More

You can find out more about WISEHK from their website: http://wisewomenhk.com/

Or follow them on Facebook and hear about upcoming events: https://www.facebook.com/wisehongkong/

Now, a few questions about Ela!

What sport do you play?

“As a kid it was baseball but now it’s mainly football but also volleyball.

There is a big community aspect to sport – as a child and teenager that moved around a lot, I found sport a great way to get to know people in my new community and to make friends’.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

“An astronaut!

We had been learning about space in school and it caught my interest but I was put off by the maths and physics (Ela’s mum is a physics teacher) that would be needed’.

What advice would you give 16 year old you?

“Prove everyone wrong – keep going and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing’.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing young girls in Hong Kong today?

“A lack of a strong support network and positive role models.

When I was growing up my Mum would dismiss my fears that I wasn’t good enough, my PE teacher inspired me, I bonded with my team mates.

I think that the academic pressure is so strong that girls don’t have the same time to build these strong connections.

I think girls need to take more time out from academics to relieve stress, build strong bonds and have more balance in their lives’.

Who were your role models growing up?

“My PE teacher when I was 13 to 16. As well as coaching us, she was the first person to speak to us about things around playing sport like health, wearing a sports bra and encouraging us to coach and help the younger girls. 

At home my Dad and older brother were hugely supportive when I told them I wanted to study sports management –my brother would point out women in sports coaching roles to me, like Becky Hammon who became the first ever female head coach in the NBA Summer League for the San Antonio Spurs’.

 

Ela’s Dad is also incredibly supportive of Ela’s career and they share a close bond over their love for sport. She is just back from  visiting her Dad in Spain where the two of them spent the holiday watching the women’s football world cup together.

Who inspires you now?

“Hope Solo and Lucy Bronze – Lucy plays football for the English national team and at the 2015 world cup she scored an incredible goal in England’s match against Norway .

There was little media coverage noting Lucy’s achievement and to me this drew attention to everything that is wrong in women’s professional sports’.

I think that we need to be out there shouting about and sharing achievements made by our female athletes so that they get the recognition that they deserve but also because it will encourage and inspire other girls.  I have mentioned the slogan before from a media campaign from Ireland supporting girls in sport “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it”. I strongly believe this.

By way of illustration, I was back in Ireland last summer and it was the women’s hockey world cup which was getting lots of unexpected media coverage because the Irish team were doing really well. They went onto reach the final against number 1 ranked team Netherlands. The Irish team were ranked just 16thin the world so their achievement of reaching the final exceeded all expectations. Apart from avid supporters of Irish women’s hockey (which would be a small pool), most Irish people (including myself) would not have been able to name one of the ladies on this team but for 2 wonderful weeks last summer, this team of ladies captured the nation’s hearts and brought us along with them on their journey. I only hope that their sport benefited from more than just those 2 weeks of media coverage and that their achievement brought more long term recognition to their sport.

We love the underdog in Ireland! Another fabulous story concerns an Irish footballer by the name of Stephanie Roche. In 2013 she scored an incredible goal for her club team which went viral on You Tube. Later that year she was shortlisted for the 2014 FIFA Puskas award for the best goal of the year. The esteemed shortlist consisted of Robin Van Persie of Manchester United, James Rodriguez of Real Madrid (for their goals at the 2014 world Cup) and Stephanie Roche. The award is voted for by the public and the country got behind Stephanie as people shared her video on social media, asking people to vote for her. Stephanie finished second earning a whopping 33% of the overall vote. What an inspiration for young girls! You can see Stephanie’s goal here

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAeOk3_Sim8

Finally, can I ask youwhat are your favourite products from the Our Girls Gang store?

“My Mum definitely would have bought me the Born for Adventure bag when I was a kid!

I love the I’ll Slay my own Dragons T-shirt – brilliant!’

Thank you Ela!

I very much enjoyed chatting with Ela – she is a lovely bright and bubbly young lady who is clearly passionate about what she does.

I absolutely agree that sport can play a valuable role in empowering girls and instilling confidence as well encouraging strong friendships and teaching management skills – all these are transferrable valued life skills.

I can see young girls completely relating to Ela. What a positive role model to young girls!

That concludes the series of articles on “Women in our Community”

What’s Next?

Stay tuned as Our Girls Gang is off to Ireland for the summer so will be bringing you some stories and adventures from our travels.

If you like what you are reading, then please support this sister and follow my blog – you will be notified by email when a new post has been added (usually once a week).

If you really like what you’re reading, then please share the article and celebrate all things girl power!

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