Fledgling Chinese sail into uncharted waters
It seems the most natural thing in the world for Chinese Olympic sailor Xu Lijia to have grown up in Shanghai. The busy port city, after all, has a long historical connection with the sea.
These days, however, it is giant container ships rather than sleek sailboats that inhabit Shanghai's waters. So perhaps it was not surprising that when Xu took to the waters at the age of four, she did so in swimming pools rather than on the open sea.
'I swam for six years and one day a sailing coach found me and let me try sailing,' she said. 'I fell in love with it. I found sailing much more interesting than swimming.'
She said neither her family nor friends knew much about sailing or other water sports at the time.
Although China won an Olympic silver medal in windsurfing in 1992, it took Lee Lai-shan's 1996 Olympic victory on behalf of Hong Kong for regular Chinese people to start to take notice.
'Lee Lai-shan's gold in the 1996 Olympics really raised the profile of sail-related sports in China, even for sailing,' she said.
'People suddenly knew what windsurfing and sailing were. A lot of the Olympic windsurfers and sailors I know joined the sport because of her.'
Although Xu has never met Lee, her first sailing regatta was, fittingly, the Optimist class national championships in Hong Kong. 'I remember it very well,' she said. 'I won a gold medal and Timothy Fok Tsan-ting awarded me the medal in the presentation ceremony.'
With an increasing number of new sailing facilities being built all over China, Xu finds herself training up and down the coastline, in Rizhao or Qing Dao, where the Olympic events will be held - but rarely in Shanghai.
'In winter we mainly train in the north and in the summer we go south,' said Xu, 'The funny thing is we never train in Shanghai at all. We only get to come back home for about a week every year when we have holidays.'
It was one day of that week in late September when Xu was in Shanghai attending the Nautica Urban Regatta - the city's first ever radio-controlled sailboat regatta. The clothing brand took the opportunity to announce a seven-digit sponsorship, in cash and products, of the Chinese Olympic sailing team.
Li Quan-hai, the secretary-general of Chinese sailing team, said he had high hopes for the Beijing Olympics.
'China won silver in windsurfing in the 1992 and 2004 Olympics, and for the 2008 Olympics we hope to make a breakthrough and win a gold medal,' he said. 'Chinese sailors are at the world class level and for the Olympics we will have many intrinsic advantages of place, people and time.'
Sailor Chi Qiang, 29, who sails in the Laser class boat for the national team, estimated that China ranks between 40th and 50th in the world in men's sailing, and are 10th in women's sailing.
'The advantage that we will have in the 2008 Olympics is that we will be really familiar with the waters in Qing Dao, but the team needs to go out and compete more,' he said.
'There is also a need to recruit more high-level athletes and trainers in order for us to improve.'
Xu agreed, saying that China has a lot of ground to make up.
'We started a little late compared to many other countries, so we don't have as much experience as the European countries or as the United States. Our techniques are not as polished as theirs yet,' she said.
One additional challenge that the women's team will face is the changeover to a new class of boats. Chinese women sailors have long been sailing on the Europe class boat, which has been used in Olympic competition since 1989. The Laser Radial class, however, will be the Olympic class for women sailors in 2008.
'It is going to be difficult because many foreign sailors have used Laser Radial boats for ages,' said Xu, 'Most of the Chinese sailors have never been on a Laser Radial boat before.'
She spent two weeks on a Laser Radial boat in July during the World Youth Championships in Pusan, South Korea, and found it more difficult. 'To control it you needed more physical strength and the rudder felt heavier as well,' Xu said.
'I think for us to really get used to the boat we would need at least a year.'] China's efforts to improve are being recognised. US Olympic sailor Dave Hughes said: 'They have already achieved some great results. It's clear that they will be a powerhouse in the sport soon.'
Xu added: 'I'm not sure whether China will be able to win or not, but I do know that everyone on the team is making every effort to realise that dream,' she added. 'I think [a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics] is a definite possibility.'