When he was a Virginia Tech swimmer, Ian Ho competed in the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials.
Five years later, the Blacksburg High School alumnus and Virginia Tech graduate has achieved his Olympic dream.
Ho is heading to the Tokyo Olympics — but to swim for Hong Kong, where his parents were born, not for the United States.
The Blacksburg native will compete in the 50-meter freestyle and the 100-meter freestyle.
“I’ll be incredibly grateful to just be there and soak it all in,” Ho, 24, said in an interview from Hong Kong on Thursday. “When you’re at the Olympics, at least for someone like me, you’re not really thinking about your placement.
“I don’t really put too much stock into how I would place against the other guys. Knowing I will be racing against the best in the world is already exciting enough.”
Blossomed at Tech
Ho’s parents met in Hong Kong. Ian’s father, Caisy, came to the United States in 1985 to study at Tech. Ian’s mother, Sonya, arrived in 1987 to study at Radford University.
Caisy Ho is now a physics professor at New River Community College, while Sonya Ho is a piano teacher at the Renaissance Music Academy in Blacksburg.
Ian Ho swam for a number of teams while growing up, including the Shawnee Swim Club, the Ridgewood Swim Club, the Southwest Aquatic Team and H2Okie Aquatics.
After being home schooled, Ho attended Blacksburg High School in the ninth and 10th grades. He swam for the high school team those years.
After his 10th-grade year, he took his GED and spent two years at New River Community College.
He transferred to Tech in 2015 and joined the Hokies as a walk-on. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Ho weighed only 148 pounds back then.
“The weight training [at Tech] really helped me because I was pretty skinny coming out of high school,” he said.
Following his freshman year, Ho tied for 36th place in the 50 freestyle prelims at the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials.
Ho later mentioned to then-Hokies coach Ned Skinner that he was eligible for dual citizenship in Hong Kong because both his parents were born there (and because Ho was born before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China). Skinner encouraged Ho to pursue that avenue, and Ho obtained his Hong Kong passport in 2017.
“[The motivation] was, ‘I have a chance to have swimming take me places I haven’t been before,’” Ho said.
Ho was upgraded to a partial scholarship after his freshman season at Tech. During his college career, Ho competed in the ACC championships and NCAA championships. He used to hold the Tech record in the 50 freestyle and was part of a relay team that broke a Tech record.
Ho graduated magna cum laude from Tech with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2018, then remained at Tech as a graduate student for his senior season (2018-19).
“He’s very powerful,” said Sergio Lopez Miro, who became Tech’s swimming coach in the summer of 2018.
Ho continued to pursue his master’s degree in additive manufacturing at Tech in the 2019-20 school year, doing research on 3D printing. With an eye on the 2020 Olympics, he continued to train under Lopez Miro.
“He likes to be successful at everything he does,” Lopez Miro said. “He’s a very good musician [the violin]. He’s very good in school. … He decides to do something, he’s going to work very hard.”
Living in Hong Kong
In order to be eligible to represent Hong Kong at international meets, Ho first needed to swim in meets in Hong Kong. So he began going to Hong Kong in 2018, swimming in a couple of meets there each year.
At the 2019 Hong Kong Open, Ho broke the Hong Kong national record in the 50 freestyle with a time of 22.25 seconds. He began thinking about the 2020 Olympics.
Hong Kong does not hold Olympic swimming trials. But if Ho could make the Olympic automatic qualifying standard in the 50 freestyle (22.01), he would earn a trip to Tokyo.
Ho competed for Hong Kong later in 2019 at the World University Games and the world championships.
But in December 2019, the Hong Kong amateur swimming association ruled that swimmers needed to live in Hong Kong for a year to represent Hong Kong at the 2020 Olympics. Ho hoped that if he could make the Olympic standard, the association might change its mind.
Ho planned to swim in an April 2020 meet in Hong Kong to try to make the standard.
But on March 17, 2020, Hong Kong announced that in two days, because of the coronavirus pandemic, it would start requiring anyone flying to Hong Kong to quarantine for two weeks upon arriving there.
Ho feared that spending two weeks quarantined, out of the pool, would leave him in no shape to shine at that April meet. So he flew to Hong Kong on March 18, getting there before the policy took effect.
The April meet was canceled because of the pandemic, but Ho has been in Hong Kong ever since March 18, 2020.
On March 24, 2020, the Olympics were postponed for a year because of the pandemic.
Ho would no longer need to lobby the association to waive its one-year residency rule. He decided to remain in Hong Kong and fulfill that requirement.
He finished his spring 2020 graduate classes online, then took a leave of absence from Tech for the 2020-21 school year.
“It is strange not to have him in our house because he [had always lived] … at home,” his mother said. “We’re real close, so we miss him. But we talk often.”
Ho has enjoyed living and training in Hong Kong, and being with aunts, uncles and grandparents there.
“My relatives are here; only my immediate family’s in the States,” he said. “It’s been great being able to spend time with them.
“To spend time in the place where my parents grew up has been great. It’s an opportunity I won’t forget.”
He lived with an uncle for a few months, but the Hong Kong Sports Institute then provided him with free housing and a stipend.
Ho has known since he attended Tech that he has an abnormality known as Wolf-Parkinson-White Syndrome, which is an extra electrical pathway between the upper and lower chambers of his heart.
Even though Tech had previously cleared him to swim for the Hokies, the Hong Kong Sports Institute wanted to perform its own medical tests.
So in February, Ho underwent a surgical procedure — an electrophysical study in which a catheter was inserted in his femoral artery, arrhythmia was induced and cryoablation was performed to freeze certain cells.
Doctors decided Ho had a low-risk abnormality, and cleared him to swim for Hong Kong.
But Ho still needed to achieve that Olympic standard. He tried to no avail at a meet in March, at another meet in April and at another meet in May.
On June 20, just seven days before the deadline to make the standard, he tried again at another meet.
“I don’t think I could’ve cut it much closer,” he said.
After competing against other swimmers that morning and coming close to the standard, he tried again by swimming solo in a time trial in the evening session. He not only met the standard but broke his own Hong Kong record with a time of 21.97 seconds.
“I’ve never felt so grateful or just overwhelmed,” he said.
His parents watched him achieve the standard live online.
“We didn’t see the time, but we knew from all the shouting and screaming that he got it,” Sonya Ho said.
Lopez Miro said Ho could do well enough in the July 30 prelims of the 50 freestyle to advance to the 16-man semifinals.
Because Ho met the automatic standard in the 50 freestyle, he will also be able to swim in the 100 freestyle prelims on July 27 because he had met the provisional standard for that event.
Ho will be Hong Kong’s only male swimmer in Tokyo, but seven female swimmers will be going as well. The team will leave for Tokyo on July 20. Ho is looking forward to the July 23 opening ceremonies.
“It’s starting to really hit me that we’re leaving pretty soon,” he said.
In August, Ho will return to Blacksburg and see his parents for the first time since March 2020. He then plans to complete work on his master’s degree and pursue a PhD at Tech.
But first, he will experience the Olympics.
“I’m just grateful to God for getting me here,” he said.