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Hong Kong Athlete Hopes for Olympic Medal in Windsurfing <i>(correction)</i> - 2004-08-26

Israel won its first-ever Olympic gold medal on Wednesday, as Gal Fridman won the men's windsurfing Mistral sailing competition. But Hong Kong's Lee Lai Shan has also had her hopes up in the sport.

In Olympic history, Hong Kong has won only one medal, and the athlete who won it in Atlanta in 1996 is aiming for another, now that Hong Kong is reunified with China.***

Lee Lai Shan competes in women's windsurfing, or Mistral, competition. Her first Olympics was in 1992 in Barcelona, where she placed 11th. But she won the gold four years later in Atlanta, becoming Hong Kong's first-ever Olympic medalist. After a disappointing sixth place finish four years ago in Sydney, Lee - who goes by her nickname San San - is back at age 33 trying to win another medal.

For these Olympics, the women are competing on fiberglass boards that are 4.24 meters long and weigh 15.5 kilograms. Their sails measure 7.4 square meters.

San San grew up on the Hong Kong island of Cheung Chau in a small fishing village. Her Uncle owned a sailing shop and introduced her to windsurfing when she was 12 years old. She used to windsurf after school and got better and better.

She has excelled in her sport internationally, and reporter Alvin Sallay of the South China Morning Post daily newspaper, which is distributed throughout Asia, told VOA Sports that that is rare in Hong Kong. "Parents normally don't encourage children to play sports, mainly due to the pressures of school," he said. "She's a special case, because she has dedicated most of her life to sailing."

Mr. Sallay said San San is part of a scholarship program in Hong Kong which allows her to compete internationally. "There are about 10 or 11 sports where elite athletes are given scholarships, which the Hong Kong government supports by paying them a small monthly allowance and giving them all the facilities and the training facilities as well as the technical support to train," he explained. "And whenever they go overseas, they back them with funds."

San San is married to Sam Wong, who himself is a former Olympic windsurfer. He serves as her assistant coach. Her head coach is Dutchman Rene Appel.

Reporter Alvin Sallay said San San was confident heading into these Olympics that she would do well. "The winds favor her a lot," he said. "It's generally very light to moderate winds, which she excels in, and she thought she had a good chance, but what she's not saying is what color her medal would be. Hopefully, you know, she gets gold."

Hong Kong windsurfer Lee Lai Shan - or San San - turns 34 one week after the Olympics end. She plans to retire from competition and start a family. She'd like nothing better than to begin the next stage of her life with another Olympic medal.

*** - Hong Kong was incorrectly described when the report was first issued 20 August 2004. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, with its own constitution. VOA regrets the error.