Lee Lai-shan - Olympic gold medallist

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am


Minutes before the start of the windsurfing first round at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Lee Lai-shan, Hong Kong's gold medal hopeful, was stung by jellyfish, leaving her with a swollen left leg.

'I was angry and upset, and couldn't help thinking, 'why did this happen to me?' But I knew I had to focus on the competition almost instantly. I had to turn my negative emotions into motivation,' says Lee, who was third after the first round, but eventually made history by becoming the first Hongkonger to win Olympic gold.

After becoming a professional windsurfer in 1989 at the age of 19, Lee, who hails from Cheung Chau, developed essential qualities that enabled her to tackle adversity and come out on top. 'I always reflect on what I have done, not only when I fail, but also after I have achieved something. Learning from the past is important for success in a sporting career as well as in life,' she says.

She recalls how during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics she dreaded speaking with the press to the extent that her apprehension became a source of distraction. 'Many people thought I stood a good chance of winning, but I knew I wasn't ready and was avoiding reporters,' she says. Lee learned how to deal with pressure from others the hard way.

But the ability to remain unfazed by expectations imposed by other people proved invaluable as she figured her way in life. During the 2000 Sydney Games, pressure again mounted on Lee to bring home a second gold. But she chose to prioritise her undergraduate studies and spent less time on training. In 1993, Lee had enrolled in a sport administration programme offered jointly by the Hong Kong Sports Institute and the University of Canberra in Australia, and was required to complete it in seven years in order to earn the qualification.

'Many people expected and wanted me to win. But I knew what my priorities were - I would have to finish my academic studies. By then I learned how to enjoy the sport,' says Lee, who finished sixth in that year's Olympics.

She says managing emotions starts with understanding oneself and the challenges that lie ahead. 'Then try to visualise a treasure box in the mind. Put the problem in it, close the lid, and focus on the more urgent task. When, after finishing the task, you look at the problem in the box again, you'll likely find that it isn't a big deal after all.'

Since retiring from professional sport in 2005, Lee, who married fellow windsurfer Sam Wong Tak-sum and is the mother of two daughters, has devoted herself to caring for her family and is applying lessons from sport to her new role.

'Like an athlete, a mother has to learn all the time - about her children and how to provide the best care for them,' she says. Yet, unlike in windsurfing, where the sportsman has some control over the variables, a mother can't know what her children will turn out to be like.

'I'm the sort of person who once I've set a goal will pursue it single-mindedly. My responsibility now is to raise my children in the hope that they will become useful for society.'