Losses key to San San's success

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


Hard times and coming last teach you the best lessons in life, says Olympic heroine Lee Lai-shan as memories of Atlanta 1996 and Olympic competition come flooding back over the next two weeks.

With local windsurfer Hayley Chan Hei-man showing Lee-like determination to compete after breaking her ribs and losing a spleen in a training accident, Lee says these travails define an athlete.

'Even if you are not going to win, I found that you can gain so much experience by just being there at an early age,' said Lee, 41, better known as San San to Hongkongers and fans around the world since becoming the city's first - and only - gold medal winner.

'Many people thought I stood a good chance of winning [in 1992], but I knew I wasn't ready and was avoiding reporters,' Lee told the Sunday Morning Post.

'In my first year competing in Europe I always came last, but I never ever gave up. I just tried to see how I could improve against the others on many, many levels. I think losing is one of the best ways of learning about winning - it's the best experience to help you win.'

When competing at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, the then 21-year-old learned how to deal with the pressure of expectations (her own, the public's and the media's), the rivalry of her closest competitors, and staying focused throughout a race that lasted about 45 minutes.

Eight weeks ago, the expectations were that Chan would be unable to make her Olympic debut after suffering serious injuries in a collision with a sailing dinghy in Weymouth. But she has made a remarkable recovery, with coach Rene Appel likening her to San San for her determination.

'When I watch the Olympics now it reminds me of all the good times, especially from the beginning of my career when I became a full-time athlete in 1989. I was working really hard then with my coaches and colleagues. There were many, many challenges, but it was the very best time of my life,' said Lee, who woke up at 4am to watch the opening ceremony. She will be closely watching the performances of mainland sprinter Liu Xiang and American swimmer Michael Phelps.

'Liu has been battling injuries,' she said. 'He's been down, but is coming back up - it's the typical up-and-down life of athletes. I want to see how he copes physically and mentally, if he can get back to his best to win gold again.

'I also want to see Phelps do well. I hope he can win the most gold medals possible. When he started, he had lots of ambition and won all those medals. Now he's enjoying just competing. That's the best way to sustain success.

'That was what it was like for me: when I started windsurfing I really wanted to win a gold medal ... I had so much focus and ambition. But that doesn't last. So you have to turn it around - regain the drive to keep on going and competing.'

The three-time world champion and two-time Asian champion competed in four Olympics between 1992 and 2004, but she was not always a winner.

'Windsurfing changed my life,' said the Cheung Chau-born Lee, who turned professional at the age of 19. 'As a teenager I always did everything with only 70 per cent effort. I never tried 100 per cent.

'I grew up in a big family [of nine] and knew I could never be the best in the family ... my bigger brothers and sisters were always better than me, no matter what. But that was a big mistake. I never felt real satisfaction.'

Then she took up the sport when she was 12, thanks to her uncle, a talented windsurfer, who gave her a board and also some coaching.

'Windsurfing taught me to do everything 100 per cent ... then I started to get good results - first in Asia, then the world title and the Olympic gold,' she said. 'So I say to people, always try your best at what you do. Don't rely on talent alone; you should always try very hard, so you have no regrets,' said Lee, who unofficially coaches young local windsurfers and wants to instruct local coaches.

'It is the best way for me to help: to give advice to young windsurfers, and be an instructor to increase the number of good coaches in Hong Kong.'

Whether that will involve Lee's daughters following in their parents' footsteps remains to be seen. 'Some people have asked, 'Will your two kids become windsurfers?' Well, I will let them try and, if they like it, then that's fine.

'My elder daughter loves dancing. I will let her decide what she wants to do. My younger daughter loves sport and we let her try lots of different sports. When they know in a few years what they want to do, we will help them, but I will never pressure them,' said Lee, who carried the Olympic flame in Hong Kong before the Beijing Games, when she was a television commentator.

But she has chosen not to do commentary work this time.

'I've no time to commentate now as I'm looking after my family,' said Lee, who has two daughters, aged four and six, with husband Sam Wong, a fellow windsurfing Olympian. 'I'm a full-time mother. They didn't like me working so much last time, so I prefer to be with them watching at home.'

Lee set herself apart from other athletes early in her professional career in the face of cynical opposition in the sport then dominated by European and Australasian competitors. At one European championship in the early 1990s, an overseas coach told Lee's coach, Rene Appel, that Hong Kong athletes were not good enough to compete at world events and should not be taking part.

That motivated Lee even more. 'I looked back and realised why I wanted to win the gold medal,' she said. 'Many people know about that coach in Europe ... I wanted to achieve something to show that Hong Kong athletes could do it.' Later clasping the medal after the ceremony in Atlanta, she famously said: 'Hong Kong athletes aren't rubbish!'

Lee's success in proving her early doubters wrong - that Hong Kong athletes can compete with and beat the best in the world - helped to transform the sport for today's promising local windsurfers.

The vast resources and generous financial support available stand in stark contrast with her own formative years in the sport, when - as a 'pioneer' - she struggled to pay her way in training and competition.

'When I started as a full-time windsurfer, it was the first time a Hong Kong woman was competing in the Asian Games,' she said.

'For the first time the national team were going to go to Europe for training. But at that moment we were not sure how much funding we would be able to get.

'When we were finally told that the funding was not going to be enough to pay for the trip, we all agreed the learning experience was going to be really important and decided to go anyway.'

The team of four, including Appel, flew to the Netherlands and drove to the coast of France. 'When we arrived we didn't want to pay for a hotel,' she said. 'We were staying three months and needed to save our money, so two of us slept in the car while the other two slept outside on the ground in sleeping bags. At the time in France it was only 3 or 4 degrees Celsius at night - pretty cold.

'Later, when we were racing in Belgium, we didn't even rent an apartment. Camping like this saved us a lot of money.'

Lee and the others also tried to save money for the trip by making their own sails - including buying and cutting up bits of material and sewing them together. 'It was really good experience,' she said. 'I didn't mind doing things like this. It makes you appreciate things ... I always think I'd rather have a hard time. It teaches you a lot. And it turned out to be a really good time.

However, some dark clouds are threatening the future hopes of budding windsurfers at the Games.

The sport faces being replaced by kiteboarding at the 2016 Games, but the Asian governing body for windsurfing is petitioning the International Sailing Federation to retain the sport.

'The final vote is being taken in November,' Lee said. 'Kiteboarding is still a developing sport and has safety issues that need working out ... so windsurfing definitely should be given at least four more years.'