Ian Ho has never packed his suitcase faster.
At 10 p.m. on March 15, 2020, he threw together enough items for a month. He and his father drove from Blacksburg to Charlotte, North Carolina, arriving at the airport at 4 a.m. for a 6 a.m flight to Hong Kong.
After 40 hours, Ho arrived in Hong Kong on March 18, just before the start of a mandatory two-week quarantine for anyone who traveled into the country as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
Time was of the essence for Ho, a former Virginia Tech swimmer and 2018 graduate. He needed to race at a swim meet in April to have a chance of qualifying for the 2020 Hong Kong Olympic team.
The pandemic changed his plans. Hong Kong closed its pools, the meet was canceled, and Ho ended up training, for a time, in the largest body of water he could find — the South China Sea.
Soon after he arrived, the 2020 Olympics was canceled.
Ho couldn’t leave the country, but that ended up working out in his favor.
On June 20, he finally qualified for Hong Kong’s Olympic team, which will compete this year. He swam the 50-meter freestyle in 21:97, breaking 22 seconds and his own Hong Kong record. He joins two other Virginia Tech swimmers and four current and former Hokie athletes who will compete in Tokyo.
The year of training allowed him to fulfill a requirement to reside in Hong Kong, his parents’ home country, for a year to be eligible for the Olympic team.
For much of 2021, Ho was slowly inching closer to the Olympic qualifying time, with several attempts. His qualifying evening solo swim was just seven days before the deadline was up.
“Everything in my swimming career has led up to this moment. Every decision I have made, every gym session, has been building up to this point,” said Ho, a native of Blacksburg who earned a bachelor’s degree at Virginia Tech in mechanical engineering and will begin a Ph.D. program when he returns to Blacksburg. “In terms of the race itself, every 50 freestyle feels more or less the same. It’s about putting together the right details at the right time. I was like ‘just pull hard and swim.’ I hit the wall and looked up at the clock.”
Meanwhile, at 5 a.m. from their bed in Blacksburg, his parents, Caisy and Sonya Ho, were watching their son swim via live stream.
“I didn’t sleep the whole night,” said Sonya, Ian’s mother who teaches piano at Renaissance Music Academy of Virginia in Blacksburg. “We heard the loud screams and shouts, and I knew he got it.”
Then, her phone blew up with text messages.
Competing at the Olympics has been in Ho’s sights since at least 2016.
But swimming has been a driving force in his life since he was 5 years old. He started swimming when his parents enrolled him and his two sisters in the local swim team, the Southwest Aquatic Team (SWAT). Caisy Ho, who earned his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech, enjoyed swimming, and he initially taught all of the kids to swim.
“We had seen families who had three children with three different sports,” he said. “We decided that all three of them will swim. That makes it easier.”
Ian Ho also learned to play the violin at 5 years old, and he still plays for his church in Blacksburg.
During the middle school and high school years, Caisy was up by 4:30 a.m., making eggs and waffles or toast for the children ahead of their 5:30 a.m. swim practice at the Christiansburg Aquatics Center. He would swim at the same time, and then drive them all to school before heading to his office at New River Community College, where he teaches physics.
All of the Ho children swam through high school before heading to Virginia Tech, where Gabriella Ho, the youngest, who will be a senior this fall, swims with the Hokie’s club team.
Ian Ho is the only one of the three who competed for Virginia Tech’s varsity swim team. He attended Blacksburg HIgh School for two years, then transferred to New River Community College to earn an associates degree.
But he did not earn a scholarship to swim for the Hokies. After convincing head coach Ned Skinner that he could swim well enough, Ian Ho walked onto the team.
Despite his skinny 6-foot-1-inch, 148-pound frame, Skinner said he saw something different in the swimmer.
“He always had natural speed,” Skinner said. “I said ‘maybe this guy could take off.’”
And Ho did get faster, with the help of a three-day a week weightlifting regimen.
During his time at Virginia Tech, Ian Ho qualified for the ACC championship all four years and swam on several relay teams along with individual sprint events. The 50 freestyle was his specialty.
“He was the true benefactor of the Virginia Tech system,” said Skinner, now coach of the Virginia Gators in Roanoke. “When you think about the strength program and the academic support and the plethora of coaches, you get a lot of kids who can really excel. Ian is one of those guys. He had talent, it really was just brought out in college as he got bigger and stronger.”
In 2016, the summer after his freshman year, Ho competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials, finishing 36th in the 50 freestyle prelims.
That was when the idea of one day becoming an Olympian became a possibility.
“It was more like, ‘I am out here swimming and trying my best and seeing what happens,’” he said.
Still, to increase his chances at one day qualifying for the Olympics, a coach suggested that Ian Ho consider getting dual citizenship with Hong Kong. He got his Hong Kong passport in 2017 and began communicating with coaches and traveling there to compete.
Skinner said Ho’s drive was obvious.
“He wanted it more than the average person,” Skinner said. “You can’t coach that fire in the belly.”
In his last year of eligibility for Virginia Tech, Ho swam under Sergio Lopez Miro, who is the current head swimming and diving coach for the Hokies. He also trained under Lopez Miro after graduating, as part of the professional team Pinnacle Racing, which Lopez Miro coaches in Blacksburg.
During this time, Ho also began an accelerated master’s degree program in mechanical engineering and conducted research in the DREAMS Lab, which focuses on additive manufacturing. In fact, Ho called the lab director, Christopher Williams, to talk with him about his decision to leave for Hong Kong in March 2020. Ho expected to be gone for only a month. He ended up having to take a leave of absence from Virginia Tech instead.
Fast forward to now, where Ian Ho is living in a residence hall for free at the Hong Kong Sports Institute as he prepares for the Olympics.
Before arriving in Hong Kong, he had begun studying to take a series of exams to qualify for the Ph.D. in engineering program at Virginia Tech. Once he got to Hong Kong, he had to take the exams via Zoom, readjusting his body clock for 4 a.m in Hong Kong, which was 4 p.m. on the East Coast, the test times.
“I needed to make sure I could still take those tests,” he said. “There was a certain amount of time to apply for a Ph.D.”
All of his extended family lives in Hong Kong, and Ho said he’s enjoyed visiting with his grandparents and other family. He often sends pictures to his parents to remind them of their lives there.
“I don’t think any other time in my life I would be given this opportunity to forget about school for a year and live abroad,” Ian Ho said.
As he worked to meet Hong Kong’s Olympic qualifying time, Ho faced another challenge. He had to undergo an electrophysical procedure because of an abnormality called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. This is an extra electrical pathway between his heart’s upper and lower chambers that causes a rapid heartbeat.
It wasn’t a problem for him in the United States, but Hong Kong would not clear him for the Olympic team until he had the procedure. Ultimately, with the study, which involved inserting a catheter into his femoral artery, doctors determined that the abnormality was low risk, and Ian was cleared to compete. Sonya Ho recalls countless Zoom meetings with doctors in Hong Kong, explaining the situation.
Now, her son is more determined than ever to compete well for his parent’s home country.
He will race first in the 100-meter prelims on July 27, after he met the automatic standard time for the event when he qualified for the 50 freestyle. The 50 freestyle prelims will be held on July 30.
Sonya Ho said she’s proud of her son and the way that he has persevered through a tough year. When he returns home, the family plans to throw a party and welcome him back to what she expects will be a busy Blacksburg life, with school, swimming, and friends.
“Looking back this whole time, doing his training away from home, I certainly see more character in him than ever,” she said. “It’s when you are being tested, your true color comes through.”
— Jenny Kincaid Boone