20 years on: San San’s golden memories of her epic victory at the Atlanta Olympics

When Lee Lai Shan won the windsurfing gold at the 1996 Games, she gained a special place in the hearts of Hong Kong people. She hasn’t always enjoyed the resulting publicity, but she is proud to have helped pave the way for other athletes’ success

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 6:17am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 10:08am

A delightful jig, a pose and a beaming smile captured the hearts of Hong Kong and a worldwide audience as Lee Lai-shan sailed into the Savannah shoreline 20 years ago on Thursday.

“San San” had been business-like and methodical in previous races of her event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but as she sailed to victory in the penultimate race, knowing Hong Kong’s first-ever Olympic medal was in the bag, joy had built to bursting point.

She had to let it out.

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It was just San San on her sailboard, a brief moment by herself before returning to the jetty a few hundred metres away on Georgia’s coast where an emotional Hong Kong contingent awaited her embrace.

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A couple of minutes in solitude to unshackle her own demons as she surfed back to a world that, in the past 45 minutes, had changed forever.

It was her final moments of being ordinary San San from Cheung Chau, and she made the most of it.

The then 25-year-old became the event’s poster girl for happiness with her celebratory dance and remains, to this day, Hong Kong’s ultimate sporting icon – the first, and only, athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in Hong Kong colours and the last under British rule.

She dedicated her medal to the people of Hong Kong, who were living under a cloud of uncertainty ahead of the handover to Chinese sovereignty in less than a year’s time and were in need of a boost to their Hong Kong identity.

“It was a long time ago, 20 years but every time the Olympics come up, I’m always thinking about the moment I got the medal, the moment I crossed the finish line in the last race of my event,” said Lee.

“Of course I was feeling happy. It was very meaningful, not just for me but for the Hong Kong people.

“Everyone was so worried as 1997 was coming. Should they stay? Should they immigrate?

“The atmosphere was tense and not many people felt very confident. Then suddenly this girl wins a gold medal and no one really thought it would happen.

“It brought a lot of happiness and hope for Hong Kong and it is still meaningful for everyone.

“Now, as we know, people are again worried about the economy and atmosphere and I really hope this year someone will bring some good news for us from the [Rio] Olympics.”

Indeed, San San’s victory sparked unprecedented publicity and festivities in Hong Kong. The city stopped to welcome her back from Atlanta as politicians and celebrities emerged from the woodwork to share in her triumph.

An Olympic buzz pervaded Hong Kong for weeks and for San San that hum remains even 20 years later, although she admits that at one point she wished she had never won a medal at all.

“When I came back from Atlanta, I really felt like I didn’t want the medal,” she said. “Suddenly, I was a person recognised wherever I went.

“People wanted pictures with me, sign autographs and I didn’t really want this. I just wanted to be an athlete and go where I like.

“That’s why I like windsurfing, I can go anywhere I like. My life really changed, it was really different and not what I expected.

“But still, there are no regrets. Nowadays, the attention is not as much and maybe 10 to 20 per cent. It took about 10 years for me to get used to it.”

Certainly, her life now is a far cry from the island upbringing she had in Cheung Chau, where she was taught windsurfing by an uncle who operated a sailing centre.

“I was about 12 when I started windsurfing,” said Lee. “When I first told my uncle I wanted to learn, he told me to take my time and just observe, so for almost a year I was helping him in the centre.

“At the end of the summer holidays he taught me how to windsurf. I really wanted to try because I saw people being moved by strong winds and I thought it was really cool.

“As I began to improve, I became Cheung Chau champion, then Hong Kong champion then Asia and world champion and finally Olympic champion. It was amazing.”

Going into the Olympics in Atlanta, Lee had already won a world title – the first Hong Kong world champion in an Olympic sport – and was one of the favourites for a medal.

At the time, Hong Kong and Lee would have been satisfied with any medal simply to break the former colony’s Olympic drought.

She won the penultimate race and was so far ahead of the pack she was able to withdraw from the final race and still capture gold handily.

While the euphoria of 1996 has significantly died down, for Lee, the legacy remains rich. The most satisfying aspect of her Atlanta gold is the inspiration it provided for Hongkongers to go out and pursue their dreams.

“I’ve received letters from people who talk about how they felt when they saw me win in Atlanta,” said Lee, who these days is a doting mother to daughters Haylie (11) and Kallie (9) with husband and fellow Atlanta Olympian Sam Wong.

“I think they had the same feeling as most Hong Kong people, that I did something they thought was almost impossible.

“When they face problems or difficulties, they think about this person who won an Olympic gold medal and think to themselves and if she can make it so can I, whether it is in their jobs or studies or just their daily lives.

“I feel very happy about that.”