One of Hong Kong’s most treasured athletes, Lee Wai-Sze has been a beacon of hope and joy for the city in the international sporting arena, but 17 years of competition have also brought about huge pressure and countless scars. We chat to the cyclist about persistence, drive and overcoming obstacles, and how she’s documenting all of this in her forthcoming autobiography.
Emotions were high at the Tokyo Olympics. The pandemic had made it a precarious journey for any athlete, with the worries that at any moment their dreams could be dashed by a further postponement of the Games or, worse, if they themselves caught the virus at this crucial time.
Professional cyclist and Hong Kong “national” treasure Lee Wai-Sze felt all of this weight on her shoulders as she arrived in the Japanese capital in August, telling reporters, “Each and every athlete here has worked so hard to fight this pandemic, and so many couldn’t be here because of it. I was worried too, and only felt some relief when I actually arrived at the competition grounds on the first day.”
Lee was one of Hong Kong’s hopefuls in Tokyo, with many rooting for her to win two medals. She lost the chance at the women’s keirin, saying she made a minor mistake that cost her a place in the top three. But that loss only fuelled her desire to do even better at the sprint event. In her race for bronze, you can see the concentration on her face as she stares straight ahead at the starting line, ignoring the psychological daggers her opponent Emma Hinze is throwing at her. As she races, Lee looks calm and composed, her expression determined and focused. When we meet for our interview four months later, she admits her stress.
“It was quite a stressful time to be honest, but I just stuck with my practice and the way I’d been training for the race the entire time,” she tells me. “We had psychologists there who also provided some counselling. I was actually quite nervous. but I listened to people who were there to guide me. And I told myself that winning or losing wasn’t the most important thing – trying my best was the most important thing. At the Olympic stage winning is on my mind, of course, but I realised I couldn’t just think about winning. I needed to think about both possibilities and know that either way, I’d be OK.”
I couldn’t just think about winning. I needed to think about both possibilities and know that either way, I’d be OKLee Wai-Sze
This was a lesson Lee learned the hard way in 2016, when she crashed out of the women’s keirin semi-final at the Rio Olympics after colliding with an opponent. A bronze medallist in the same event at the 2012 London Olympics four years earlier, she must have felt as if all her hopes had been dashed in a matter of seconds. But the cyclist has an extremely tough mindset. Tears were still streaming down her face as she faced reporters right after the unfortunate crash, but she pulled herself together in record time. An hour later, she raced again at the consolidation final and placed seventh in the overall competition.
Lee admits that scenario had replayed itself in her head the day before the race in Tokyo, but she powered through, telling herself she mustn’t quit or give up on her opportunities. I ask her if she’s ever been afraid of trying again after each crash and fall.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a fear,” she says, “though I definitely think there’s something that lingers in the back of your mind. You keep wondering whether that same situation will happen again when you get back on the bike.
“But the more you train, the more you improve. You subconsciously overcome whatever happened in the past because your skills and your techniques are better now. And when you race again, you realise whatever happened before won’t happen again. It was just an accident. I started to see that, OK, at this angle or at this turn I’ll crash if I try to do this. But if I do something else, I’d be fine. You see everything more clearly and don’t let the same mistake happen a second time.”
We’re used to comparing athletes in terms of speed and strength, but for Lee, that’s not all there is when it comes to cycling. To win, she doesn’t necessarily have to be faster or stronger than her opponents. It’s as much
a mental game, in which she must be smart and use her head to compete. She recalls realising this about cycling around 2009 or 2010, during the World Cup in Beijing.
“It was like something clicked in my brain and I suddenly understood how to compete,” says Lee. “I won bronze, and it was such a wonderful feeling. Before, I felt that I only had my ability to go by, but after that race I realised competing was about having the right tactics as well. After that, I began to incorporate tactical training and to use tactics to my advantage.”
Lee has come a long way since turning professional in 2004. Seventeen years later, she still gets nervous before every race. “I constantly live in anxious mode,” she laughs. “Not long after I turned professional, I remember I was so nervous I got a fever the night before a race. My coach let me off the hook and I was completely fine the next day after a night’s sleep.”
But mental training and having the right attitude paid off. Lee has gym training three times a week and rides twice daily, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. On her one rest day a week, she focuses on recovery. Her sport is never far from her mind. Closer to races, her preparation intensifies. “The closer I get to a competition, the more I start treating every day like it’s race day. They’re almost like rehearsals for me,” she says.
“Practice is what makes success. If it’s something I care about and if I believe that it’s important, I’ll put 100 percent of my effort into it. Nothing else matters and I can disregard everything else. When I was going to the Olympics, I was so focused on training I didn’t go home for months. But it’s worth it to me. I’m able to put aside certain aspects of my life to work for something I truly believe in,” says Lee.
Lee often approaches the press with a wide smile – you’d think she’s a positive ball of energy if you didn’t know her personally. Is she as bubbly and confident as she looks on TV? She denies it with a laugh. Performing well in her sport doesn’t depend on positivity. “It’s about the attitude,” she declares. “It’s your attitude towards the future. You need to look forward to the future. You can’t dwell on the present, because at this very moment you might feel like you’re suffering. But this suffering is what gets you there.”
Seventeen years of professional athleticism and the immeasurable highs and lows that come with competitive sport form the impetus for Lee’s first autobiography, which will be released this month. The athlete, who had to give up her studies when she first became a professional cyclist, is now studying for a second degree in creative and professional writing at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“The book is about my scars,” says Lee. “Whether they’re physical or mental, I talk about them all in the book. It’s a collection of my experiences throughout the years of my career as a professional athlete.
“Maybe you’ve seen me win a lot of medals at various competitions, but behind the scenes, there’s still so much that people don’t know. The book reveals all of that,” she says.
Maybe you’ve seen me win a lot of medals at various competitions, but behind the scenes, there’s still so much that people don’t knowLee Wai-Sze
In the book, Lee talks about the 2016 crash. She also shares the story of her first win, in India for the Youth Asian Games. “I won, but I also crashed right at the finishing line,” she says. “I was so happy and so devastated at the same time. In India, they didn’t have an awards ceremony; instead, they had a performance. I was just handed my medal and I took a picture in front of the performance with a couple of horses behind me. It was quite a funny experience.”
As to how she actually overcomes her adversities, Lee laughs out loud and exclaims, “You’ll need to find out in the book. It’s too difficult to explain in a few short sentences, because it’s such a complex feeling.”
The athlete says she’s always enjoyed writing, having picked up the habit of keeping a diary in primary school, when she realised that it was a good outlet for her to express her emotions and to organise her thoughts.
“I text my sister a lot when I’m sad and she told me, ‘Just write it down. You keep a diary; you should write down your thoughts.’ And then I found out that things aren’t as bad once you’ve written it down. It’s the worst when it’s all in your head and you’re just looping your thoughts over and over again. But once you write it down, or ask yourself, ‘Is there really no solution to this problem?’ you realise that, actually, you can solve it.”
Writing has helped Lee overcome a lot of things, but there’s something else she also does often. “I cry,” she says, chuckling. “No matter the ups or downs, all of this is part of the human experience. You don’t need to try and bury these feelings because it’s all part of the journey. Your experiences are part of you, and you’ll only grow from them.”
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLING | ALVIN GOH
PHOTOGRAPHY | MORGAN HUNG
RETOUCHING | CHOW SINGSING
HAIR | JEAN @ ATEN STUDIO
MAKE-UP | ALVIN GOH
MANICURE | JASMINE CHAN
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS | ANGUS LIU, HEINAM LIU, AND STEVEN LAM
STYLING ASSISTANTS | GENNADY ORESHKIN AND HEIDI LAM
This story first appears on Prestige Hong Kong’s January issue.