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Great Scot: We talk to DB resident and world-class athlete John Campbell

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DB resident John Campbell proves you’re never too old to become a world-class athlete. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

 Do nut, under any circumstances, ask John Campbell to ride a bicycle. The part-time athlete and architectural consultant who’s coming off a win at the ITU Aquathlon World Championships in Cozumel, Mexico is willing to risk offending cycling aficionados when explaining his preferred two-sport competitions.

“I don’t do triathlons because I don’t like bikes. I bought an expensive bike last year and I’ve used it three times. I’m not built for bikes. It’s not much of an exercise. I know I’m going to insult a lot of cyclists but when I run I’m constantly under stress,” John says with an absolutely straight face, adding a comment about post-cycling soreness. “My bum’s just not built for it.”

Bone dry in a way that only Scots can be, the UK native and six-year Hong Kong resident is also, arguably, the city’s most low-profile, world-class athlete. John can name-drop with the best of them – he once trained with Montréal Olympics gold medalwinning, British swimmer David Wilkie and controversial South African runner Zola Budd – but he never makes it seem like he’s showing off.

At 61, the ITU and World Masters Athletics Championships regular is quick to admit he has his limits too. “It’s frustrating when I train on Tuesday evenings in Aberdeen with the younger ones, and they start sprinting. My brain says ‘Yes, you can do it,’ and my body says ‘No, no, no you can’t,’” he comments with a laugh. “For the aquathlon in Mexico, last September, I got the help of a friend and fellow competitor Scott Burton and we did both swimming and running training three times a week for five or six weeks. If I trained with others more regularly I know both my running and swimming could get a lot faster again.”

The day job

An architect by traade, John landed in Hong Kong in 2010 after travelling back and forth from London six times a year since 1992. While with architecture and engineering giant TFP Farrells, he was technical director on the Peak Tower, Kowloon Station and the British Consulate. When the work in London failed to stimulate him, he relocated to the SAR full time. “I just enjoyed coming out here. It’s a great place. China was beginning to buzz and there was lots of work I was involved with, so I wanted to be near it,” he recalls.

John set up his own consultancy in 2012, and currently sits on six committees, including as chair of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Hong Kong chapter and the Society of Façade Engineering. ’’ “That keeps me quite busy,” he notes as an understatement.

Perched on the verge of permanent residency, John recalls his first impressions of Hong Kong as crowded, polluted and noisy, and he found the peculiarities that make the city what it is confounding. “I couldn’t quite work out the behaviour of the people. I never understood not holding a door open or sitting at opposite ends of a bus and shouting at each other,” he remembers with a sardonic laugh.

On top of that, Discovery Bay was low on the list of places to settle. “DB was about the last place on earth I was ever going to move to. It’s just not Hong Kong,” John says. But as it turned out a “fantastic” property agent showed John two or three DB homes and one ticked all the boxes. The Campbells moved into Siena One in 2010 and the rest is history.

Going the distance

When he’s not working, John is either running or swimming. No stranger to combined events, he started competing in biathlons in 1985 and signed up for his first aquathlon in 2010. “The aquathlon is running and swimming consecutively, while the biathlons, that I originally did, involved swimming then a break of several hours before the run or vice versa,” John explains. Aquathlons combine a (roughly) 5-kilometre run and a 1-kilometre swim, and John now competes in the 60 to 64 age group.

“Those Ironmen and Ironwomen out there, who think that distance is all-important, should try these shorter, sharper events and see how tired you get working at a much harder rate but for a shorter period of time,” John says.

At the 2011 ITU in Beijing, John had hoped to place in the top 10, and much to his surprise, he won in his age category. London in 2013 followed but the swimming course let him down. “Because the water was down to 17°C I just didn’t run well. I was frozen, and couldn’t feel my legs. It didn’t help I couldn’t get my wetsuit off,” he admits. “So I did it again in 2016 because it was Mexico, and it was warm. I wasn’t really fit enough but I decided to take it on.” Wrong, as John placed first for Hong Kong in his category.

“The next ITU aquathlon is set for Rotterdam, in September, which means it’s going to be absolutely freezing again, so I’ll give it a miss,” says John. In the meantime, he has races planned in Hong Kong over rougher ground, for which training will continue – possibly in his Speedo, a habit that’s garnered John a bit of notoriety in DB. Though he’s occasionally told to get dressed by wife Sharmin, he resists. “Given the right temperatures, there’s no point in running with a pair of shorts on. And I don’t want a suntan with the line across the thighs.”

Professional retirement may be coming up – he and Sharmin have flirted with renting an Airstream and touring Europe – but how soon this transpires is anyone’s guess. Something that might tempt him to do so is photography – he recently had a landscape photograph published in Digital Camera. “I’d like to do more commissions for travel or sports photography but need to get invitations to training sessions or competition events,” says John (https://500px.com/jcampbell_edin).

As for the aquathlons, John can’t see himself stopping any time soon. “It will be an injury or something that stops me from doing it,” he reckons, taking an aside for a story about a 95-year-old he saw shuffling around in Singapore at a race. If it’s not embarrassing, John can see himself in the 80-plus category. “I enjoy competition. Though at the end of each one I think, ‘Never again,’ because it’s just so hard,” he says. “I ask myself why I’m doing it.” Because he can.

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