Your insider’s guide to Hong Kong

Life in the Fast Lane

‘Cycling Goddess’ Sarah Lee has twice come close to winning an Olympic gold medal, but says sport is about more than just glory

Words: Yam Yim Lan
Photos: Nic Gaunt

Hong Kong cycling star Sarah Lee Wai-sze steps into The Landmark Mandarin Oriental’s Apartment Suite wearing an elegant black lace dress and light makeup. Her hair is down and she radiates an elegance that is at odds with the usual image of her – dripping in sweat, hair swept back in a ponytail, pounding around the velodrome in the sprint track event.

Known as the “Cycling Goddess of Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate” and for her colourful Hong Kong flag nails, she is the city’s leading sports celebrity, having won bronze in the women’s keirin sprint at the 2012 London Olympics.

Hong Kong has won just three Olympic medals since it first competed at the Olympics, in 1952.

Asked about how she deals with being one of the city’s rare sporting celebrities, Lee says: “Fame fades with time but sport isn’t just a hobby, it’s for life. It’s not just about staying fit, exercise also helps me work on my everyday problems.”

 

Sarah Lee

Lee’s Olympian journey was not an easy one. She was born with anaemia but even so did well enough as a 100- and 400-metre runner at school in Kowloon to be recommended for the Hong Kong Sports Institute’s prestigious Future Star Programme.

“Cycling is a relatively international sport and it appealed to me, so I decided to give it a try and see whether I could achieve something,” Lee says of her decision to become a professional cyclist in 2005.

The road to success saw inevitable setbacks, such as the wrist fracture that she suffered in a 2007 training incident. As a result, she had to undergo several operations and even her coach, Shen Jinkang, advised her to quit.

“It didn’t feel right to end my career so early,” says Lee, who went the extra mile by working out on a stationary bike after doing her injury rehabilitation exercises. All the hard work eventually paid off when she made a successful return to competitive racing at the ACC Track Asia Cup.

After taking gold at the 2010 Asian Games, bronze at the London Olympics and winning the 2013 UCI Track World Championships, Lee had high hopes of winning the keirin event at the 2016 Olympics. Held in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, she controversially crashed out on the final lap in the semi-finals. It was painful, but she pulled herself together and came first in the consolation final an hour later.

Lee has a philosophical approach to competition. “Athletes do have clear goals but people forget all the efforts we make. We don’t see this as a hardship, we enjoy the process.”

Sarah Lee

Having turned 30 in May, Lee has one eye on the future. “People think athletes lead a different kind of life but actually a sporting career is similar to other professions. There are plenty of options after retirement. What matters most is enjoying what you do. It’s just a waste of life if you don’t have a passion for your work.” Even so, Lee has had her moments of doubt and at one time felt she was doing what others wanted her to do, rather than leading her own life. “I couldn’t motivate myself to do anything for a while. I just thought I was going along with other people’s plans for me, rather than living the life I wanted.” She overcame this mental block by reading and kept a journal of her thoughts. “I found that I could understand more about the world and what other people thought through reading. “But the person who inspired me most was myself. It was hard to find someone who could solve my problems when I felt life dealt me a bad hand, so I tried to come up with my own solutions. This is a helpful character trait and I never gave up. After a fall, I would get back in the saddle and get going again. “Anyone can do this. The trick is having faith in yourself. If I didn’t trust myself and just went with the flow, blindly following, I wouldn’t be happy.”
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