Nicknamed “San San”, the hugely popular windsurfer Lai Shan Lee is the first athlete from Hong Kong to climb to the top of their sport and the only Olympic champion ever produced by the former British colony.
Learning the hard wayOne of nine children, Lai Shan Lee was born on the little island of Cheung Chau and was introduced to windsurfing at the age of 12 by one of her uncles, himself a talented windsurfer. He gave her the equipment she needed and taught her how to use it. Seven years later she turned professional and started to take part in competitions in Europe, making light of the obstacles she faced. These included a lack of funding, which forced her and her small back-up team to sleep in cars or in sleeping bags on bare ground. “In my first year of international competition in 1989, I finished last every time, but I never gave up,” she later said. “All I was doing was trying to understand how I could improve against my competitors at every level. I think losing is the best way of learning how to win.” In a sign of things to come, she then won silver in the Mistral class at the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing.
A first taste of the GamesSan San was 21 when she made her Olympic Games debut in 1992, competing in the Lechner A-390 class. Having arrived in Barcelona with great expectations, it was there that she learned to deal with pressure. Maintaining her powers of concentration over the course of ten 45-minute races, she finished in a commendable 11th place, the best result ever achieved by a Hong Kong athlete in Olympic sailing.
Making historyThe Cheung Chau windsurfer’s career took on a whole new dimension when she won the Mistral gold at the 1993 Sailing World Championships at Kashiwazaki in Japan. The following year she finished runner-up again in the Asian Games at Hiroshima, and in 1995 she took bronze in the Worlds at Port Elizabeth, South Africa. On 22 July 1996, before the start of the first race at the Atlanta Games, Lee was stung by a jellyfish in Wassaw Sound, causing her left leg to swell up. Reflecting on the incident, she said “I thought at the time ‘Why me?’ But I just got on with it and turned my negative thoughts into positive ones.” Third in that opening race, she stayed in the leading positions for the rest of the competition, scoring four second places and winning race eight to take the gold medal, becoming Hong Kong’s first and only Olympic champion and a hero to its seven million inhabitants. Famously, her triumph prompted her to tell the world’s media: “Hong Kong athletes are not rubbish!”
World title hat-trickFrom 1997 onwards, Lee represented Hong Kong, China and won that year’s windsurfing world title at Freemantle, Australia. She followed up in 1998 by taking gold at the Asian Games in Bangkok, before finishing sixth at Sydney 2000 and claiming a third world title at Varkiza (Greece) in 2001, and a second Asian Games title in Busan (Republic of Korea) in 2002. Appearing at her fourth Games in Athens in 2004, San San featured prominently in most of the races, only to finish just out of the medals in fourth. She retired from competitive windsurfing in 2005, later receiving an honorary doctorate in social sciences from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and moving into TV commentary. On 2 May 2008, just a few weeks before the Beijing Games, Hong Kong’s greatest ever sports star became the first person to carry the Olympic torch through the region’s streets.