Babies on board

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2008, 12:00am

Having been away from training for four years, Lee Lai-shan has lost the deep tan that comes with long days spent out in the sun. The former windsurfing champion misses the adrenalin of racing on the waves and that feeling can only sharpen as the Olympics draw close.

San San, as Hong Kong's only Olympic gold medallist is often called, dropped out of competitive sport to raise two young daughters, but being able to soak up the Olympic vibes as a television commentator should take the edge off her yearning.

'It's a shame that I won't be taking part in the Beijing Games as an athlete because it's a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity when our country is hosting the Olympics.

But I've chosen to stay with my children,' says Lee. 'I still have great passion for the sport and miss the competition. So it makes me feel better that I can still be part of the Games as a commentator.'

The 37-year-old, who won her gold at Atlanta in 1996, is a member of the ATV team covering the opening and closing ceremonies in Beijing and will also be commenting on the sailing events at Qingdao.

Being a TV presenter is a fresh challenge even if Lee has had plenty of experience talking in front of cameras, so she's working hard to ensure a smooth show. 'I'll also need to clean up my lazy Cantonese tones,' Lee says. Still, she'll have help from fellow presenters, including Priscilla Ku Kei-kwan, the first broadcaster to interview her after the gold medal victory.

Lean and trim, Lee is in good shape after giving birth to her second daughter, Kallie, last August. And she says she may get back behind the sail if she can handle her family responsibilities.

'It's an unfulfilled dream [to win a second Olympic medal],' Lee says. Her hopes were scuttled at Athens in 2004 after she was disqualified in one race and penalised for jumping the gun in another.

'It was a blow. I did well in the first half of the competition and was confident that I would be among the top three, but couldn't catch up after the penalty,' she says. 'I still want to prove my ability.'

If she attempts a comeback, Lee's first stab at an international competition would be the 2009 East Asian Games in Hong Kong. 'It's hard to strike a balance between family and career. But if I resume competition, I want to win. I wouldn't be there just to participate,' she says.

At Qingdao, she hopes to get some advice from former rival Barbara Kendall, also a mother of two. The New Zealander is a three-time Olympic medal winner and is competing in her fifth Games at the age of 40. But there's no question in Lee's mind about which takes priority: if competing takes up too much family time, she will give it up.

Her one-month stint in Qingdao will be the first time that Lee will be away from her daughters and she's relying on her siblings to help husband Sam Wong Tak-sum mind the children while she's away.

'I'm lucky because I have a big family,' says Lee, the eighth of 10 children. 'I'll prepare homework to keep my two-year-old daughter, Haylie, occupied so that she won't miss me too much. We'll chat through the Webcam every day.'

Lee says she's still learning about motherhood. These days her daily routine involves preparing meals, changing nappies and storytelling, unlike her life as an athlete which was 'more independent. I didn't have to compromise and just focused on my goal.'

'Parenting trains your EQ [emotional quotient]. Sometimes I have to stand firm with the children; at times I have to soften a bit. It's mentally demanding.'

There are no plans to guide her children into sporting careers. 'I'll back them all the way whatever they pursue, just as my mother supported me when I decided to be an athlete,' Lee says. But if they want to become full-time athletes, she will remind the girls there will be inevitable comparisons with parents who were both elite windsurfers.

Growing up on Cheung Chau, Lee learned to windsurf from her uncle when she was 12 and became a member of the Hong Kong team seven years later. Her unexpected Olympic triumph, however, brought overwhelming stress as the community clamoured to get close to their golden girl. 'I didn't know how to respond to the attention,' she says. 'I hid away on an island for a week to avoid the spotlight and cried many times. It was the loneliest period of my life.'

Over time, she became used to being a public figure and is now delighted she can exert some social influence, especially as more parents are getting their children to take up sports because of her.

Benefits for local athletes have improved greatly following her success, but Lee reckons there's considerable room for improvement: for example, better career transition and academic schemes for sportsmen and women.

'Many retired athletes struggle to find employment because they lack work experience,' she says. 'It's also difficult for them to go back to school because they may not meet academic requirements.'

And unlike the mainland, where top athletes may receive corporate sponsorship and advertising contracts, Lee says options are limited in Hong Kong. Her appearance in a TV commercial in 2006, one of the first for a local athlete, stirred some controversy - the bank ad had Lee estimating the cost of bringing up a child in Hong Kong to be as high as HK$4 million, which some criticised as an exaggerated figure that advocated elitist education.

Shrugging off the criticism, she says: 'People distorted my message, which was about financial planning.' She reckons the figure given by professionals was a valid estimate.

Lee hopes to organise a children's sports programme that would not only promote exercise but stimulate their thinking and goal setting. She knows how sport aided her personal growth. Through sport and competing, she learned to communicate better and improved her people skills, she says, and discovered a need to learn more.

'I didn't like studying when I was a teenager, but as I got to see more of the world after becoming an athlete I had the desire to acquire more knowledge,' says Lee, who went on to earn a sports management degree in Australia.

If it weren't for sport, she would probably have become a clerk or policewoman, she says.

'But most importantly, I met my husband through my athletic career. Without him, I wouldn't have had this lovely family.'