'It's been a long wait. I didn't expect it would take me another four years to win another world title'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2001, 12:00am

Golden girl Lee Lai-shan was back on top of the world last night. Soon-to-retire San San captured the third world title of her long and illustrious career with an emotional triumph at the World Championships in Athens.

'I'm ecstatic,' the Cheung Chau-born windsurfing diva told the South China Morning Post. 'It's a coincidence that I've won the world title every four years. It has been a long wait. I didn't expect it would take me another four years to win another world title.'

San San's third world title - captured with a race to spare - follows previous successes at the World Championships in Kashiwazaki, Japan, in 1993 and in Perth, Australia, in 1997. Her CV also includes her unforgettable 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games triumph, an Asian Games gold in Bangkok in 1998 and eight Asian Championship titles.

'I had been leading in last year's World Championships in Argentina until the final day but I made some mistakes to allow Alessandra Sensini [subsequently the Sydney Olympic champion] to take the lead and she went on the win the title. I wasn't given the chance to exact revenge then because the final race was cancelled as the wind died down.'

San San - who fended off a strong challenge from Frenchwoman Faustrine Merret to win the title yesterday - declined to compare her latest success to the Olympic gold that brought euphoria to Hong Kong in 1996 but said: 'The Olympic gold is the most memorable but every world title is special for me.'

San San said earlier she wanted to cap her glittering sporting career with a triumph at October's All China Games in Shenwei, Guangdong, before retiring early next year. She reiterated yesterday that she wanted to do just that and her thoughts on retirement had not changed.

'I really want to win the All China Games because I haven't competed in them before. It will be nice if I win that one back-to-back with this world title. I have no time to think about life after retirement yet because I'm going to be very busy,' she said.

'I won't be able to stay in Hong Kong more than a week in the next two months because there are also the Asian Championships coming up.'

San San's win also showed her form has been revived following her disappointing sixth place at the Sydney Olympics last year. She has now won three major regattas this year after her successes at the SPA Regatta in Holland and the Kiel Week Regatta in Germany a few months ago.

The 31-year-old said the quality that separated her from Merret, who settled for second after pushing her all the way over the past week, was experience. 'The winds here were very gusty and shifty. It's difficult for younger sailors like Faustine to handle the winds as well as their nerves in tough conditions like this and my experience paid off.

'I have been competing on the circuit as a full-time athlete for 11 years and one of my strengths is that I don't panic or become moody if I sail a bad race. I have raced in every major regatta, including the Olympics, so I know how to handle different situations,' she said.

San San shrugged off talk that the absence of reigning Olympic champion Sensini and Frenchwoman Lise Vial - who finished ahead of third-placed San San in the European Championships in Marseille two weeks ago - had made it easier for her to win her third world title. 'I don't particularly fear them. I have beaten them both on my way to winning at SPA and Kiel Week. We placed a higher emphasis on the World Championships than the European Championships, so we trained for three weeks here but only went to Marseille a few days before it started,' she said.

San San got off to a sluggish start with a sixth place in the opening race at the World Championships but soon bounced back and took the lead. The title hunt turned to a two-horse race between her and Merret midway through the competition as other competitors, including Sydney Olympic silver medallist Amelie Lux of Germany were way behind the duo.

Both San San and Merret registered a poor finish, with San San being disqualified for a premature start in race six while Merret sailed to 41st place in race four, meaning that they could not afford to falter as there were only two discards in the 12-race series.

San San had led by only a few points as both of them had sailed consistently but races turned into a dramatic affair on Saturday when San San effectively lost her overall lead during race eight and race nine. In both races, she was trailing far behind Merret before making up lost ground.

When sailors took to the water yesterday in race 10, the two contenders played a cat-and-mouse game with San San finishing just ahead of Merret in fifth place.

However, San San secured the title with a race to spare when Merret made a crucial mistake in the penultimate 11th race, which ended with the Frenchwoman in 15th while San San came home fourth. San San went on to compete in the final race and finished a lowly 27th but it didn't matter.

San San will be able to share her success with husband Sam Wong Tak-sum, who was coaching Hong Kong's youngsters at the IBSA World Junior Championships in Italy, as the two squads will meet soon before returning to Hong Kong later this week.

San San won the title on 33 penalty points while Merret was 16 points behind. Another Frenchwoman, Jeanne Milhos, was third overall a further 10 points behind. Hong Kong's other competitor in the women's fleet, Chan Wai-kei, finished 19th overall.

Former world junior champion Ho Chi-ho became the first Hong Kong windsurfer to finish in the top 20 in the men's competition at a World Championships as he came 20th in the 55-strong gold fleet, which was won by 1996 Atlanta Olympic champion Nikolas Kaklamanakis.