As he watched the athletes head up to the podium to collect their medals, rowing coach Victor Lee Chi-yung struggled to hold back the tears. Under the guidance of Lee and his team, Hong Kong took one silver in the mixed coxed four and bronze medals in the men’s, women’s and the mixed double skulls at the 2010 Asian Para Games in Guangzhou.
Masterminding a weighty medal haul was no easy task. The team’s gruelling training regime on the water, combined with the varying degrees of disabilities among his squad, made it an incredible feat for a team formed under the auspices of the Beijing Olympic Games legacy.
“It’s not about me being successful, I’m just doing my job,” says Lee.
Lee has spent hundreds of hours on the water in a career of coaching and nurturing young alent. But his focus gradually turned to disabled, adaptive rowers, when the opportunity arose.
Five years of early starts and late finishes for Lee reaped big dividends, after he was approached to take on a job that had no targets or expectations to produce medal hauls.
As coach, his typical daily schedule - repeated up to six times a week - looked like this: 5am – wake-up call, 6am – at the rowing centre ready to train his athletes;8.30am – breakfast; 10am – outreach work with first school; 1pm – lunch; 2pm – outreach work with second school and 7pm – till late in the evening training for adaptive rowers.
In that time, he’s led disabled rowers to the 2008 Beijing Olympics as well.
Back in 2005, Olympic opportunities came in flush with money and it presented an opening to maximise the legacy benefits across a wide range of sports.
An injection of funding from the Jockey Club handed Lee a chance develop fresh talent in adaptive rowers.
Even with the chance, initially spreading the word about adaptive rowing was a challenge, Lee says.
“It was difficult to go inside schools, negotiate with the principle of those schools to do outreach work. They would say: ‘Rowing is quite hard for our students. Maybe it will hurt our students.’”
After the Beijing Games in 2008, and with the help of adaptive rower Cho Ping, schools flung their doors open in the belief promoting the sport could be a ticket to the Paralympics thinking of their own students as potential rowers.
Before that, there were few resources available to provide comprehensive training. “Without money, how can I do anything [for this team]?” Lee explains.
Lee’s love of the water sport started at university, where for four years, he rowed for Hong Kong Polytechnic University, rising all the way to lead the team. The upper body power he possesses hails from his university rowing days.
“I was looking for a part-time job, and a team who saw me, said: ‘I think you’re so good, I think you could help our youth development programme’, so that’s how I started as a coach.”
The medal moments were undoubtedly Lee’s proudest in his career but once the curtains came down on the games, it signalled the end of the road for his involvement with his athletes on a full-time basis.
“I do feel unhappy that there is no funding left, and the squad has had to stop. It’s disappointing,” Lee says.
But he hasn’t walked away from the sport altogether. He continues to work with rowers on a voluntary basis, and in his spare time.