Competition no day at the beach for student

Winston Wing Hong To doesn’t hold anything back.

“I try to do new things and I’m always trying to learn new things. That’s the point of living a life,” he said.

Take for example the PhD student’s extracurricular activities. While nowhere near the top of the popularity list in Canada, the Toronto native has taken to lifesaving competitions, returning from the Lifesaving World Championships held in Adelaide, South Australia, this past month.

The International Lifesaving Federation collaborates with international organizations engaged in water safety/rescue, lifeguarding activities. The organization runs the Lifesaving World Championships, called Rescue Series, every two years.

With competitions including surf ski, board paddling and surf swim, Wing Hong To’s focus was on dry land, in particular the sport of beach flags, used to practice beach sprinting and reflexes.

The competition is played by sticking a series of flags in the sand – typically short lengths of hosepipe – while competitors lie facing away (and face down) approximately 20 metres away. Upon a starting signal, they race to the flags and try to grab one. The difficulty in the sport is there are always fewer flags than competitors, similar to musical chairs.

But there’s a lot more endurance, stamina and power needed, with a round run by a national finalist taking under four seconds.

Wing Hong To has been involved in the sport for four years, learning more about it while doing his masters in sports management while at Bond University in Australia.

“When I was in Australia, the university was really Americanized, so I wanted to get into the Australian culture,” he said. “I was taking a boxing class and the trainer said I’d be good at beach running. I said ‘What is it? What do you do?’ I was a swimmer and lifeguard in Canada, but didn’t know the beach side of it.”

Competing often in Australia, Wing Hong To has missed making Canada’s national team on a pair of occasions, but only four years into the sport, representing Canada at the 2014 world championships in France is not out of the question.

“It is a very good culture, and the team I was part of was really motivated,” said the 27-year-old. “Realistically, there are a lot of better athletes coming up. While I came in third before in Canada, I’m just doing this for fun. It’s an enjoyable sport. It’s fun to be involved and see all the friends you’ve made.”

As current chair of Sport Development for Lifesaving/Sauvetage Canada, he is thrilled to see interest in the sport growing to the point where funding is available for athletes to compete internationally.

While he would never turn down the opportunity to represent Canada on a national stage, Wing Hong To realizes schooling takes priority at the moment. A PhD student in Cultural Studies of Sport and Exercise, he specializes in Comparative and International Sport and High Performance Sport.

And the recent trip to Australia has refocused him as to where he should put his time when it comes to his studies and academics.

Wing Hong To plans look at national sports policies in regards to high-performance sport, looking at the differences and similarities of various governance and political systems.

“I think there will be surprises,” he said. “Sports policy and high performance is always changing. It will be interesting to see how high-performance sports connect to sports for all. If a country focuses on high-performance sports, do they take away from the sports-for-all initiatives, or vice versa?

Wing Hong To said he’s leaning toward staying in academics, as a professor or lecturer, appreciating the research and writing aspect of his current work, under supervisor and Kinesiology professor Darwin Semotiuk.

“I want to make an impact in the academic world in that area. It’s a very new area, less than 20 years, so there is a lot to learn,” he said.