Chinese duo Sui Wenjing and Han Cong perform their free program routine during the pairs competition at the International Skating Union Italian Grand Prix on November 6, 2021 (XINHUA)
Bridge Over Troubled Water is clearly the favorite song of Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, China's leading figure skating duo. The first time they used it in competition was during the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland. Even with a flawed landing by Sui, the pair still won gold there, thanks to their standout overall performance.
"We chose this music in 2017 as we love the theme; it described our situation at that moment," Sui said.
They chose the song again during the qualification events for the Beijing Olympic Winter Games. These events began in October last year and were held successively in Beijing, Canada and Italy. With the same song but a new choreography, the pair came in first in all qualifying events, and gained qualification for the Beijing 2022 Games on December 11 last year.
Ups and downs
The pair missed the Sochi Games in 2014 due to injury and received a silver medal at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang. Now there are fewer than 20 days left to the Games.
In 2016, Sui underwent major surgery on both ankles and had to pause training for five months. "I couldn't even walk after the surgery. I sank into a deep depression and thought I'd never return to the ice."
It was Han who encouraged her and offered all the support he could. "He was like a bridge that held me up on the path to chasing our dreams," Sui said.
Formed in 2007, the pair made the World Junior Championships in 2010, and was regarded as the new rising stars in China's figure skating. They climbed to the top of the Four Continents Championships in 2014 and have been regular podium finishers at major competitions ever since.
The serious injuries, though, have made their ride to the top a bumpy one. They missed quite a few major international competitions prior to 2017 in Helsinki. Before that, China had not won a gold medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in seven years.
The pair won World Championships in both 2019 and 2021 and became six-time winners of the Four Continents Championships.
The duo is now undergoing final training for the Beijing Games. "We've received a lot of help over the past several years, " Sui said, adding the help is like a bridge over troubled waters for them. "We will strive to show the best of ourselves during the upcoming Games and hope the Beijing Olympics will also act as the bridge between China and the rest of the world."
Passing the torch
Their duo, Zhao Hongbo, has witnessed their ups and downs. Zhao won China's first ever Winter Olympic gold medal at Vancouver in 2010 with his partner Shen Xue, after the pair won bronze at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics. Zhao retired from competition in 2010 and became the national pair skating coach in 2013. Later, when head coach Yao Bin retired in 2017, Zhao took over the top job in Chinese figure skating.
At the request of the Winter Sports Management Center of the General Administration of Sport of China, Yao returned to the team in late May 2021 to coach alongside Zhao in preparation for the Beijing Games.
Yao, born in 1957, coached Zhao and other Chinese top skaters in their early years. Even though figure skating has been an Olympic sport since early last century, the sport did not begin to develop in China until the 1950s. The first time figure skating appeared as a sporting event in China was in February 1953, at the First National Ice Sport Meeting held in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province in northeast China.
China's national figure skating team was formed decades later, in 1986. Yao, who had competed in international figure skating events including world championships and the 1984 Olympic Winter Games, became the team's first coach.
"We lagged far behind experienced skaters from other countries," Yao said. "China was still struggling with poverty in those years and couldn't afford to employ foreign coaches. We didn't have any guidance in training and had to study by ourselves, bit by bit from scratch."
After becoming head coach of the national team, Yao learned everything from how to train athletes to how to create costumes and even skates, which he designed and crafted.
In 1995, Chen Lu won a gold medal in the women's single event at the World Figure Skating Championships in Birmingham, the UK; China's first ever figure skating gold medal at this event. In 2002, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo won their first World Championship gold in the pairs event in Nagano, Japan.
Figure skating ranks third on the list of Winter Olympic disciplines in which China has won the most medals, right behind short track speed skating and freestyle skiing.
Currently, Yao is mainly responsible for coaching the men's and women's singles skaters, as well as the ice dance groups. He has been tasked with improving the overall strength of the figure skaters.
Ice dancing is similar to figure skating, but has some distinctive features.
"Ice dancers compete only in pairs, not as individuals," Yao said. "Ice dancing doesn't feature acrobatic movements such as the jumps, twists, or lifts seen in pairs figure skating. Instead, it's more focused on rhythm, musical interpretation, timing and the precision of steps."
An Olympic sport since 1976, ice dancing is young compared with figure skating, which has been part of Olympic competition since the first Winter Games in 1924.
China is not as strong in ice dancing as it is in figure skating. The best result at a World Championship, achieved by Wang Shiyue and Liu Xinyu, was 13th at a competition held in Stockholm, Sweden, last year. As China's top ice dancers, Wang and Liu will be representing China at next month's Games.
Jin Boyang, who will compete in the men's single figure skating event at the upcoming Games, is a star skater. He won two bronze medals, in 2016 and 2017, in the World Figure Skating Championships and is the first Chinese skater to win a medal in the men's single event. At the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games, he ranked fourth, but he hopes to return to the podium next month in Beijing.
According to Zhao, the athletes are currently training three times a day. "They have a specific training plan that includes general physical training and targeted explosive training," Zhao said. "They are trying their best."
Printed edition title:Dancing on ice
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson