Battling Chan deserves special medal for grit
with Peter Simpson
There are several definitions of a 'champion' and now there is another to add to the Hong Kong windsurfing glossary - Hayley Chan Hei-man. Nine weeks ago, she was flat out on a hospital bed recovering from surgery to remove her spleen and was in agony every time she moved a muscle because of five broken ribs - injuries sustained on the front line of Olympic duty.
Her podium dreams took a tumble on June 2 when she collided with a wayward 49er racing dinghy travelling at high speed on the windsurfer course at the Olympic sailing venue of Weymouth, and everyone but Chan and her coach wrote off her debut Games showing. But despite intense back pain, the determined Hong Kong University student still managed to stand tall. Over the weekend, she lifted her sail once more and gave it her all, narrowly missing out on a medal-race berth - a Herculean effort that is perhaps deserving of a special medal for true grit. 'Seeing Hayley compete in these Olympics after what happened nine weeks ago has been a victory in itself,' said her proud coach, Rene Appel, who knows what makes a sporting hero, having coached Atlanta gold medallist and Olympic legend Lee Lai-shan.
Chan, along with male RSX windsurfing hope Andy Leung Ho-tsun, crashed out of the 2012 Olympic regatta in the heats. Fledgling surfer Leung was battling the best boardsailors in the world and finished 13th overall. Injured Chan had an extra struggle in the women's competition. She lined up against 25 other medal hopes and faced a gruelling schedule with two races each day. She took part in 10 races but finished 12th, just outside the top 10 who go through to the medal race. Yet as the last of the Olympic wind spilled from her sail, Hong Kong's magnanimous sailor washed away the disappointment and promptly thanked her coach for steering her through rough weather.
'In my eyes, Rene is the greatest coach. Ever since my accident he has been encouraging me. All the time I was in hospital, he was spurring me on. I am just happy to make him proud,' a tearful Chan said as the team began packing up their equipment in the Boat Park.
'I want to also thank Hong Kong University for being so patient and allowing me time to train full-time. And I want to thank my family and friends and all the people of Hong Kong who have supported me through the last nine weeks and cheered me on. I tried my best.'
As the pressure and drama of the last four years lifted from her shoulders, Chan was also philosophical. 'I have mixed feelings about my performance. I can't look at the 'what might have been' had I not had the accident,' she said.
'I actually think if I hadn't suffered the injuries, the pressure on me to succeed would have been immense and I would have felt more disappointed today if I did not make it into the medal race. I have to look it like that. I just missed out. I had my chances but I didn't take them. That happens. I feel pretty happy.'
Determination drove her on, said Appel. With the odds stacked high against them, the pair tried to catch up on training and hone the race against the clock. But the crucial hours and minutes to fine-tune and make the medal-race cut proved elusive.
'Hayley made an incredible, amazing recovery to compete here. She was dead determined to make it to these Olympic Games. We have had very little time to prepare her as a result of the accident. At the end of the day, there was not enough time to get all the issues right, such as the race timing. She had some back pain at the start of her return,' said Appel.
No matter. There has been time to mould a hero in the making on the English Channel. 'She has been absolutely fantastic and to see her compete and narrowly miss out on the medal race shows what kind of athlete we have. She was disappointed in missing out. But she is determined to carry on and succeed. That is the hallmark of a great athlete,' added Appel.
As Chan now prepares for a holiday with her parents, Mina and Questor, in Europe after the Olympic closing ceremony, all focus is on November when sailing officials sit to decide the fate of Hong Kong and the rest of the world's Olympic windsurfing future. Windsurfing is likely to be dropped as an Olympic sport to make way for kitesurfing. But the decision by the International Sailing Federation has caused a storm among windsurfers and their worldwide fanbase. A legal bid was launched on August 1 with an appeal lodged in London's High Court to have the decision overturned.
Appel and Chan are among those lining up to defend windsurfing from the Olympic axe and both say the awe-inspiring course in Weymouth - which took sailors close to shore for the public to witness the thrills and spills - has boosted chances of a reprieve.
'The windsurfers here have put on an amazing display. The TV footage has been just incredible. All credit to the organisers for pulling it off. This has probably been the best televised sailing regatta in the history of the Olympic Games,' Appel said. 'Hayley, Andy and I went over to the spectators' gallery on our rest day and we sat on the grass with thousands of people. It was a great atmosphere and I think it must be the first time in Olympic history that the public could see the racing that close to shore. Hopefully, everyone who has seen the dramatic racing will think it a great shame if windsurfing is not part of the Olympics in 2016,' he added.
Chan says she is considering the jump to kitesurfing should the worst happen, but will continue windsurfing in preparation for the next Asian Games and other tournaments. But once bitten, bashed and bruised, forever smitten, and Chan says an Olympic gold remains her ambition.
'Watching Sarah Lee Wai-sze make Olympic history and win bronze in the cycling has inspired me even more to win. Seeing her on the podium has made me really want to win an Olympic medal for Hong Kong,' said Chan, speaking like a true champion.