A lawnmower buzzes across a damp soccer pitch, spraying clouds of fragrant cuttings into the breeze. The rhythmic slap of rubber soles rises and fades as two runners round the synthetic track. Screening the oasis of tranquillity is a distant ring of high-rise apartments. Behind them, green mountains stretch into low-hanging cloud. As the day unfolds at Hong Kong Sports Institute at Sha Tin, its low-rise buildings and sports fields could be a world away from the grinding traffic, pollution and crowds of the city outside. The front-door of the institute bursts open and an excited troupe of visiting senior citizens flood the main hall, name tags prominently pinned to their colourful shirts. The women peer and point at life-sized photographs of Olympic gold medallist Lee Lai-shan. The champion windsurfer's coach, Rene Appel, stands watching them from an administrative nook. When the chatter explodes into cries of 'Aiiyah . . . siu-je', and the grannies race away to jostle at the foot of distant stairs, the tall, blond Dutchman nods resignedly. 'That's San San,' he says, without glancing up. Sure enough, her familiar bob, hair pushed back with a pair of sponsorship Ray-Bans, protrudes above the sea of greying heads. The territory's golden girl scrawls several autographs, grins for group photographs, extricates herself politely and strides over. 'This is normal now, for me,' she responds to questioning looks. Appel grumbles that his star pupil no longer has time for training, her schedule blocked up with interviews, television shoots, sponsorship appearances, business meetings and commercial filming. 'Compared to before the Olympics, there's quite a big change,' San San admits. 'A lot of people ask for autographs, pictures and so on. But I'm happy because they know what sport is now. Hopefully I can raise the spirit and let people know athletes in Hong Kong are trying as much as possible. We are not wasting their money.' Since the 26-year-old bagged the territory's first Olympic medal - and made it a gold - in the seas off Savannah, Georgia, barely two months ago, her stature has grown to near-legendary proportions. After the initial round of cocktails, banquets, the unveiling of a windsurfing statue on her home island of Cheung Chau, a ticker-tape parade and receptions, she is still besieged by crowds. San San figures she has signed 'thousands' of autograph books, which she diplomatically passes to her Olympic windsurfing boyfriend Sam Wong Tak-sum. Fans have also been known to charge alongside their car to catch a glimpse of the heroine. 'I was planning to make an autograph chop,' she laughs, 'but it's not as nice. 'Actually, I was surprised so many Hong Kong people were waiting in Tsim Sha Tsui [on the Olympic team's return]. 'I thought people were not really concerned about athletes in Hong Kong but, suddenly, so many people supported it. I was very surprised and happy. 'All the press asked me for pictures with my mum. Then - wah! - suddenly, so many photographers and press were in front of me. I've never seen so many in my life. In that corner, I'd say there were 40 or 50 cameras. 'After that I went to a press conference, and there was another 40 press there. So that was 80. Then I went to Tsim Sha Tsui - there was another 40 press there. And when I went to Cheung Chau there was another group of press. There must have been more than 100.' Zest soap is one of the sponsors planning to clean up on her popularity: San San and Sam will start lathering up on television screens within weeks, but insist they are not about to sully their squeaky-clean reputations. 'We will be training together - not showering together,' says Sam. 'It won't be like a Category Three movie,' San San laughs. 'You don't need to be naked with the soap on you.' Born on Cheung Chau, the eighth of 10 children, San San was drifting through school when she caught the windsurfing bug at the age of 12. 'We didn't have karaoke or discos. It's a very quiet island; mainly it's for water sports,' she points out. 'My dad died when I was eight years old and my mum had to take care of all the kids. She couldn't spend all her time on one kid, she had to spread it around. 'So you feel you have to help yourself to grow; you develop the attitude that if you work hard you can have a better life. 'You don't expect someone to help you, you have to work. You can see that you're not the only one in the world. 'I was eight when I joined the school swimming team. When I was getting good at swimming, I saw some windsurfers sailing around and I thought: Wah! It's very exciting - and they were going so fast. So I asked my uncle [Lai Kan], who had a windsurfing centre, if I could try. 'That saved me a lot of money. If you wanted to join a windsurfing course, you had to spend something like $300. 'But my uncle taught me, and if I wanted to go out on a board I borrowed it from him. He was one of the best windsurfers in Hong Kong at that time and he brought me into competition.' It was almost 10 years ago - when the teenager was still struggling to hold her sail aloft and learning to read the winds - that friends introduced her to a tanned windsurfer four years her senior. 'I had sailed down from Stanley and I met her with some of my windsurfing friends on the beach,' Sam recalls. 'I'd heard her name for a long time, but that was the first time I saw her. Impressions? Nothing special. Just another female windsurfer, although there weren't too many at that time. 'Later we were teammates for the national team. We trained together, we got to know each other better, and it was during that period that we found we fit together quite well.' In 1989, coach Appel took on the newly-formed Hong Kong National Windsurfing Team, and San San and Sam plunged into daily training on fitness machines at Sha Tin and on their boards at Stanley and Tai Po. By the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, a 21-year-old San San had begun notching up experience from races in France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, England, Spain, New Zealand, Japan and the United States. 'If we are in an important year, like an Asian Games year or an Olympic year we spend seven to eight months outside Hong Kong,' San San says. 'You need quite a lot of racing experience - and also you want to check the other competitors' techniques and sailing styles. 'Styles are different. Some people have a bendy body when they sail; some are very straight. I'm in between. Sam's kind of a bendy body.' San San sailed ninth in the tough pre-Olympic rounds and set her sights on a better result in the finals. Bitter disappointment followed when she managed only 11th. 'I had a lot of pressure and I couldn't deal with it,' she winces. 'Every time I went sailing I lost my motivation. I lost my concentration because there were people sitting on the shore shouting. In Barcelona, the spectators were less than 100 metres from the course. Psychologically, I was not ready. 'After the 92 Olympics . . . I came back to Hong Kong, talked to sports psychologists and asked them if they could help me solve my problems. 'And they really did help me. In Savannah I was very calm. I could do whatever I wanted. They taught me a lot, like how to concentrate when racing. 'Races normally last about 45 minutes, which is quite a long time. You can't lose your concentration halfway, so they've been teaching me to concentrate longer. And how to deal with the pressure. 'When people say 'You'll be the gold medallist of the '96 Olympics', you have to think about how to deal with it. If you keep thinking 'They expect me to get a gold medal. I have to do well, I have to do well' you'll have a lot of pressure. You have to just look at it as support.' In July this year, with an extra four years of training, international competition and weekly psychology sessions under her belt, a confident San San launched her board for a second Olympic attempt. 'For the whole competition I was calm. I didn't think about what position I would have, but after the seventh race I found that I would receive a medal no matter what. 'In the final race I remembered the first year I went to Europe, 1990. One of the coaches had said Hong Kong athletes were rubbish. 'That was the thing that motivated me to go on. 'I was very angry, but I couldn't scold them because at that time I was not of the standard. The only thing I could tell myself was to try hard. 'So in the last race I told myself: go with whatever you have - try to prove that you are the champion.' Sam, watching the final from his board as he lined up for his Olympic Men's class race, shot over to the finish line to congratulate his triumphant girlfriend on the water. 'Unfortunately, I didn't know he was there, so I went back to shore,' San San laughs. 'The first person to congratulate me was our team manager, Bertie de Speville. He had brought a bottle of champagne, in case I got a gold.' Pictures of a bedraggled but jubilant San San, beaming and clutching a mobile phone to her ear as she spoke to her mother on Cheung Chau, bounced around the globe and landed on the front page of Hong Kong newspapers. 'My mum was very happy. She had been watching the whole series on TV and hadn't had enough sleep.' While the territory celebrated its first gold medal, Sam - an Asian Games silver medallist who also had hoped for a Savannah victory - could be forgiven his inner turmoil. 'We discussed it quite a lot,' San San reflects slowly. 'But Sam says he doesn't mind because I deserve the gold. 'We are competing in different classes . . . it's totally different. I was worried, but he says he has no problem with it.' Sam is cheerful about the recognition gained for sportsmen and windsurfing, but has one gripe with the adulation heaped on his girlfriend: the comparisons. 'Is it hard? Maybe. At the very beginning. But if I don't look at it that way, I feel happy. I'm only competing against myself and my competitors. You cannot compare us . . . It doesn't make sense, it will make you unhappy. 'I get the same number of sponsors as San San. I probably don't get as much prize money, because she's a gold medallist and deserves a little bit more. 'She's very hard-working. If she wants to achieve a goal, she'll try her very, very best. She uses time efficiently. I've learned from her; I used to be very calm, a little bit lazy, and somehow time slipped away. But with her I'm becoming more efficient at using time. 'An interviewer a few days ago asked San San to give me marks. If 100 marks is perfect, she gave me 80. I'd probably give her 85; she deserves more than 80. Eighty is more than enough for me. I don't want to be 100, it would be too difficult to live up to,' Sam says. The couple, who now live at Stanley, insist they will marry - but in their own good time. 'We are not engaged yet,' San San says. 'But at the . . . '94 Asian Games in Hiroshima, all the press asked: 'Hey, when are you going to marry.' So I said: 'After the Olympics.' So this time they expected us to get married. 'I've won a lot of important competitions - the World Championships, European Championships, Asian Championships, even the Olympic gold - and the only thing I've missed is the Asian Games. I really want to finish the whole series before we think about marriage. 'I had a discussion with Sam straight after the Olympics about what he wants to do, and he also wants to get a gold medal in the Asian Games. So we made an agreement that we won't think about marriage until after 1998. 'We are so close. We know each other's goals. Sometimes we don't need to say things. When we're training we look on each other as team-mates. After training we look at it as a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship.' Both are working towards degrees in sports administration, which will take them to Australia next year for six months of study. 'We are classmates, teammates and also boyfriend and girlfriend. We do argue, but always in a fair way,' she says. An irony for the 'Cheung Chau girl' is that she left home five years ago and only visits the island about 10 times a year. 'I've been back three times since returning from Atlanta: the celebration dinner, the windsurfing statue unveiling and the day I came back from Atlanta. A lot of people asked for autographs and pictures so I needed a police escort. If I want to go back a fourth time, I need to call the police and make sure they're ready for me,' she says. 'I don't want to make a lot of trouble, so if I want a quiet dinner I ask my family to come over to Hong Kong side.' A New Zealand skiing holiday is coming up. Then the windsurfing duo head to Australia for a competition and start studying in Canberra mid-year. Neither wants to 'make a fortune', saying they would be happy with jobs as sports administrators or coaches. 'I think I should start working. I've been an athlete for a long time,' San San reflects. 'I don't look at this as work, I look at it as a hobby - but I spend more time at it than others. If I looked at it as work I don't think I would enjoy it as much. 'Athletes in China look at it as work. They have more pressure and they won't train as aggressively. They say: 'OK, I work from 9 to 5, so I don't train after 5 o'clock.' Even when they go overseas they think their job is to go out racing, but they won't do other things. When you enter a competition you have to register yourself, stamp yourself and read the sailing instructions. They think the coach will do it. But I think that everything related to your sport, you have to learn. 'Before I started windsurfing, I always did everything 70 per cent. My school results were always 70 per cent and, if you asked me to do something, I would do 70 per cent and think it was enough. 'But if you go to a windsurfing competition and you do 70 per cent, you'll get 70 per cent results. If you want to do well you have to spend 100 per cent - or even more.'