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Savannah's First Medals

Gold medals are won by sailors from Hong Kong in the Mistral class and Poland in the Finn class. By James Pilcher
Savannah News-Press

Lai Shan Lee crosses the finish line first in Sunday's race.A first for Poland. A first for Hong Kong. A first for Savannah.

With the weight of her country squarely on her slim but strong shoulders, Lai Shan Lee became the first-ever Olympic medal winner in any sport from Hong Kong when she won Sunday's only race in the women's Mistral windsurfing class.

''My mother and family have been up all night waiting for the results,'' said Lee, known better as San-San, at a press conference that was beamed live across the world from the day marina on Wassaw Sound. ''Now maybe she can get some sleep. I know I will.''

Poland's Mateusz Kusznierewicz wrapped up the gold in the Finn class by winning the day's single race.

In so doing, he became the first Pole to win an Olympic yachting medal.

''I don't feel it now,'' said Kusznierewicz, who couldn't stop smiling after the race. ''Once I get back to my country and people show me how important this is, then maybe it will, how do you say it, sink in.''

The two combined to become Savannah's first Olympic medalists after what has seemed like never-ending preparations.

''This is just flat out neat to see,'' longtime Olympic volunteer Bobby Groves said. ''I never thought this day would come.''

Lee knew only too well this day might come for her. Entering these Games, she was the only legitimate threat for a spot on the medal stand in any sport for Hong Kong. And now that she's finished the job, she can revel in the significance of it.

Lee's medal was not only the first for Hong Kong, but perhaps the last, at least for the British colony's current configuration.

China takes control over the city next year, and even though Hong Kong will be represented in Sydney in 2000, this was a win for not only the past of Lee's homeland, but also for the future.

''I tried to leave all of that off the water,'' said Lee, a 25-year-old student from Cheung Chaung Island, a small fisherman's village in the Hong Kong harbor. ''Relaxation is so important to this sport, and that's what I tried to do. I haven't even thought about the political things, but I do know that this will mean more medals for Hong Kong.''

Lee's win also will mean a hero's welcome back home.

A throng of Asian journalists crowded her from the time she landed on the day marina. They waited outside the drug testing trailer as she struggled to produce a sample and created a near free-for-all as ATV, the Hong Kong network, conducted a live interview with her.

There also are plans to erect a statue in her honor back home, either on her native island or on the bridge that connects Hong Kong to China.

''She might not say it, but she really wants to prove Asian and Hong Kong athletes can do well,'' said Tak Sum Wong, the Hong Kong men's Mistral entry and Lee's longtime boyfriend. ''I do know a lot of people are happy back home.''

But before that happened, Lee needed to take care of business on the water. And for awhile, it appeared she might not get the chance.

Savannah's fickle weather provided another day with light winds, and the Mistral fleet waited until nearly 5 p.m. before leaving the day marina to sail.

And it also looked as if Lee might have to sail another day before wrapping up any medal.

She was the third to last boat at the start, but she said that was by design.

''I was planning to be conservative at the start,'' Lee said. ''I just didn't want a PMS (premature start) and I knew I could catch up.''

And that she did. Halfway up the first upwind leg, Lee was in the middle of the fleet, but by the first mark, she was in second behind Poland's Dorota Staszewska, with Barbara Kendall of New Zealand a close third.

''I just pumped harder, and I knew I could catch her,'' Lee said.

Kendall entered the day needing a top three result and for Lee to have a bad race to remain in the hunt for the gold. But the cramps she suffered two days ago recurred, and try as she might, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist couldn't keep up.

''I was just trying to survive without pumping much, and you just can't do that,'' said Kendall, who needs a fourth or a fifth in today's first race to hold onto the silver medal. ''I need to heal the damage, so unless magic happens, I could be in trouble.''

Lee passed Staszewska within 100 yards of the reach mark going downwind and extended her lead the rest of the way, using a thunderstorm to the south to catch a windshift.

And after she crossed the finish line ¬ the first time she had won a race throughout the regatta ¬ the pressure finally was off.

The real San-San then emerged, the playful and happy woman Savannah got to know last summer when she won the pre-Olympic regatta here.

As she went on her victory lap, Lee played to the photographers on the water, pumping her fist in the air while several competitors and international coaches applauded and sailed up with congratulations.

Lee greeted them all with a smile as bright as the hot pink barrettes she wears to keep her hair out of her eyes.

''This gold medal not only belongs to me, but all of the Hong Kong people,'' said Lee, who plans to take a break and return to her sports administration studies at the University of Canberra in Australia.

''I'm just happy I was the first one to do it.''

Updated July 28, 1996 by


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