Chinese skeleton athlete Yan Wengang competes in the Men's Skeleton during the 2021/22 International Bobsleigh Skeleton Federation at Veltins Eis-Arena on December 10, 2021, in Winterberg, Germany (XINHUA)
It's been six years since Geng Wenqiang hopped from his long jump career into one in skeleton racing, the sport in which a person rides a small sled, known as a skeleton bobsled, plummeting head-first down a frozen track—while lying face down. His selection for China's Skeleton Team in 2015 made him one of the earliest Chinese skeleton athletes.
Prior to his switch, Geng had been a long jumper for nine years, with his personal best the gold medal at the 2015 University Games in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. That same year, on July 31, Beijing won the bid for the Olympic Winter Games in 2022. Later, China decided to establish teams for the several winter sports that it had no athletes in. Skeleton was one such event.
A nationwide selection was launched to recruit daredevils able to partake in skeleton racing, virtually considered the world's first sliding sport. Athletes from track and field were among the most favored in the enrollment process.
Geng decided to take up the challenge. The honor of being on a national team, as Geng put it, was one of the major reasons for his decision to apply. "It is any athlete's dream to be on the national team and participate in world-class competitions," he said. After a series of evaluations and contests, Geng, along with a handful of other contestants, made it onto the team. And so, they embarked on their new career track.
Starting from scratch
China's skeleton team took official shape in October 2015, staffed with five females and five males. As China featured no professional track for training, they had to venture overseas, mainly to Canada and Germany, for training.
"The sport looks intimidating and exhilarating at the same time," Geng said. The blitz down the track, at a speed of over 130 km per hour, has earned the event the nickname of "the Formula 1 of winter sports." The high risks it entails caused the sport to be removed from the Winter Olympics lineup twice in history—in 1928 and in 1948. In 2002, at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in the U.S., it was reintroduced.
At the onset of their new adventure, Geng and his teammates spent months overcoming their fears. "I was super nervous at the very beginning and my anxiety would build up every day," Geng said. "I couldn't sleep very well, either."
Passion gradually overpowered fear, especially for a man who loves a thrill. "I love riding rollercoasters and this sport is far more exciting than that," Geng added. "Today, I love the sound of the ice blades zooming along the tracks and I enjoy the wind whistling in my ears on the way down."
As the team's leading figure, Geng debuted on the international skeleton scene in 2016 by taking part in the Europe Cup, and established himself as an athlete-to-watch in the following years in the North American Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.
In 2018, he participated in the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games in South Korea and came in 13th. Gold medalist Yun Sung-bin, from South Korea, had been training for six years before dominating the competition. This boosted Geng's morale, given he'd only been training for a little over two years at that point. "By the Beijing 2022 Games, I will have been in the sport for over six years," Geng said. "I hope I can become a gold medal winner there."
In 2018, he bagged a gold medal at the North American Cup and a bronze one at the Europe Cup. In January 2020, he made a historic breakthrough by winning the bronze at the 2019/2020 International Bobsleigh Skeleton Federation (IBSF) World Cup in La Plagne, France, marking China's very first skeleton podium position at the World Cup.
Along with Geng's improvements, Chinese female athletes have also made steady progress. Li Yuxi, a sprinter from Sichuan Province, joined the national skeleton team in 2015. Over the past six years, this 23-year-old athlete has grown from a no-name to a gold medalist at the opening race of the 2021/2022 IBSF European Cup held in Lillehammer, Norway, on November 12, 2021. Today, as the Beijing 2022 Games come close, Li is striving to win an Olympic medal.
As the athletes were drumming up to the upcoming games, Beijing had been busy, since 2018, constructing a bobsled, skeleton and luge track. Now, the track at the National Sliding Center in Beijing's suburban Yanqing District is ready to welcome the athletes.
Deep in the Xiaohaituo Mountain valley, the race track zigzags down the slope like a dragon.
It proved the most difficult trajectory to design and build for the Beijing 2022 Games. The track, boasting a length of 1,975 meters and a 121-meter drop, is the third in Asia and the 17th in the world. It features a total of 16 curves, including one at 360 degrees.
Following its completion in July 2021, the Chinese athletes conducted their summer training there from July to September. Li Weicheng, an official with the General Administration of Sport of China, revealed that over the course of their six-year-long training, scientific and technological advances have refined every aspect of preparation for the Chinese skeleton team, from physical training to wind tunnel tests and personalized diets.
For example, an athlete takes an average of 16 to 18 steps before getting on the sled. A row of eight cameras lined up along the ice house's starting area accurately capture the details of each athlete's movements to improve their efficiency.
As the speed of the skeleton is very fast, athletes undergo wind tunnel tests to effectively learn how to reduce wind resistance and improve their times.
"Through the wind tunnel test, we want to let the athletes know what kind of posture on the sled is most drag-reducing and time-saving; we also hope to conduct further tests and make more improvements to the equipment to enhance performance," said Sun Fan, head of China's skeleton training team.
More good news popped up as the athletes were preparing for the Games. On November 26, 2021, Geng secured China's first ever World Cup skeleton win during the IBSF World Cup in Igls, Austria, marking a new chapter in China's skeleton sport.
"China has never won any Olympic skeleton medal before," said Yin Zheng, another skeleton athlete who joined the national team in 2017 and took home the gold at the Europe Cup Skeleton Lillehammer 2021/22 on November 13, 2021. "We hope we can fill this vacuum during the Beijing 2022 Games," he said.
(Print Edition Title: On the Fast Track)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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