Olympic date for San-san

Guy Haydon

Retired windsurfer Lee Lai-shan has her eyes on the Games

Guy Haydon |

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Hong Kong's only Olympic gold medallist Lee Lai-shan has a date tonight with the Games - just as she has had for the past 20 years.

"I'm going to set my alarm clock so I wake up to see the opening ceremony," says the retired windsurfer, 41, best known as "San-san" to Hongkongers and millions more around the world since her victory in the women's mistral windsurfing event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. "I don't want to miss it. It starts when it's 4o'clock in the morning here - the middle of the night."

The three-time world champion competed in four Olympics between 1992 and 2004, but was not always a winner.

"Windsurfing changed my life," says the Cheung Chau-born Lee, who turned professional aged 19. "As a teenager I always did everything with only 70per cent effort. I never tried 100per cent.

"I grew up in a big family [of nine] and knew I could never be the best in the family ... my bigger brothers and sisters were always better than me, no matter what. But that was a big mistake. I never felt real satisfaction."

Then she took up the sport aged 12, thanks to her uncle, a talented windsurfer, who gave her a board and also some coaching.

"Windsurfing taught me to do everything 100per cent ... Then I started to get good results - first in Asia, then the world title and the Olympic gold. So I say to people, always try your best at what you do. Don't rely on talent alone; you should always try very hard, so you have no regrets."

Yet Lee - 11th at the 1992 Barcelona Games, and sixth at the 2000 Sydney Games - says she has one regret: the 2004 Athens Olympics, when she was fourth. "I was leading, but was disqualified for a premature start in the fourth race. I insisted I didn't and would not stop protesting. I got so upset it ruined all my other races. If I'd a chance to go back, I'd just calm down. I could have done well."

Lee, who retired in 2005, carried the Olympic flame in Hong Kong before the Beijing Games, when she was a TV commentator.

"But I've no time to commentate now as I'm looking after my family," says Lee, who with husband Sam Wong, a fellow Olympian, has two daughters aged four and six. "I'm a full-time mother to my children. They didn't like me working so much last time, so I prefer to be with them watching at home."

Apart from windsurfing, Lee will watch the volleyball, tennis, swimming and diving events.

She is also keen to follow the fortunes of two stars - mainlander Liu Xiang , the 110m hurdler and 2004 Olympics champion, and the American swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Games.

"Liu has been battling injuries," Lee says. "He's been down, but is coming back up - it's the typical up-and-down life of athletes. I want to see how he copes physically and mentally, if he can get back to his best to win gold.

"I also want to see Phelps do well. I hope he can win the most gold medals possible. When he started, he had lots of ambition and won all those medals. Now he's enjoying just competing."

Today, Lee - who combined studies for a sports administration degree, offered jointly by the Hong Kong Sports Institute and the University of Canberra, in Australia, while competing - "unofficially" coaches young Hong Kong windsurfers and wants to instruct local coaches.

"It is the best way for me to help: to give advice to young windsurfers, and be an instructor to increase the number of good coaches in Hong Kong."

She hopes windsurfing will stay as an Olympic sport for at least four more years. It faces being replaced by kiteboarding at the 2016 Games, but the Asian governing body for windsurfing is petitioning the International Sailing Federation to retain the sport.

"The final vote is being taken in November," Lee says. "I really hope windsurfing stays in the Olympics.

"Kiteboarding is still a developing sport and has safety issues that need working out ... so windsurfing definitely should be given at least four more years."

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