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Veteran skater works for the popularization of winter sports across the country
Meet Li Yan, head coach of China’s speed skating team
By Lu Yan  ·  2022-02-14  ·   Source: NO.7 FEBRUARY 17, 2022

Torchbearers Li Yan (left) and Yang Yang wave to the crowd during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Games at the National Stadium in Beijing, on February 4 (XINHUA) 

Life is coming full circle for Li Yan, head coach of China's national speed skating team. 

In 1987, Li, then 21, was selected to the national short track speed skating team and trained at Beijing's Capital Gymnasium. Over the past three and a half decades, she has grown into a world champion and then head coach of the country's speed skating team and president of the Chinese Skating Association. Though her role has changed, her workplace has not, which today happens to serve as the figure skating and short track speed skating venue during the Beijing 2022 Games.

Despite her professional evolution, Li's original aspiration has never changed: making Team China stronger and promoting ice and snow sports nationwide.

February 4 saw the Beijing 2022 Games officially open inside the capital's National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest.

In the final torch relay inside the arena, seven torchbearers—respectively representing Chinese winter sports athletes of six age groups passed the flame down from oldest to youngest member.

Three of them were short track speed skating Olympic champions, including Li. "I'd long dreamed of becoming an Olympic torchbearer," she said. "Just like the torch relay, the flame of winter sports will be passed down from generation to generation in China, and I believe its future will be brighter and more stable," she added.

Skating sensation

Li was born in 1966 in Mudanjiang City, Heilongjiang Province in northeast China. Known as the coldest area in the country, with temperatures regularly dropping to 30 degrees Celsius below zero, the place is home to many winter sports athletes.

Like many budding athletes embarking on sports at a young age, Li left her hometown when she was 13 to start training professionally at a sports school in Juamusi City, situated on the border of Heilongjiang.

In 1988, when short track speed skating first appeared at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, as a demonstration sport, she made her debut there, won a gold medal in the 1000m and finished third in the 500m and 1500m events.

Li went on to embrace one of her most successful years as an active skater in 1992, when she won silver at the Albertville Olympics in France, where short track speed skating first gained official medal status. In the 500m, she narrowly failed to catch American skater Cathy Turner in the home stretch, losing by just 0.04 second. That silver was the first Winter Olympic medal for China.

In 1994, Li bid farewell to her athletic career and started working as a public servant at a local tax bureau. Yet this life of calm left her with a craving for challenge. On a business trip to Beijing, she decided to visit an ice stadium. The moment she opened the doors, "the familiar scent made the heart beat faster," she recalled.

Years passed by, but in 2000, she received a telephone call asking whether she would be interested in a short track coaching position in Slovakia. Other Chinese coaches had refused to grasp this opportunity, but Li agreed "after thinking about it for 10 seconds." She eventually led the Slovakia team to qualify for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, U.S.

After the Games, Li moved to the U.S. and started a coaching stint with the U.S. national team. Under Li's guidance, the American men's short track team finished eighth overall in the 2005 World Cup, while the women came in sixth overall. The teams combinedly grabbed 30 World Cup medals, with Apolo Ohno becoming World Cup Champion. Ohno went on to pocket an Olympic gold in the 500m at the Turin 2006 Games in Italy.

"When I first became coach of Team U.S., there was a lack of trust between the athletes and myself, partly due to the language barrier and their still adapting to my coaching style," Li said. Her competence, sincerity and sense of athletic honor ultimately ironed out these initial wrinkles.

China, too, took notice of her achievements and invited her to coach the Chinese national short track speed skating team. In 2006, she signed a four-year contract to coach the team.

Under her supervision, the team glimmered with new energy. For example, the talented yet notoriously temperamental Wang Meng repeatedly broke the 500m world record during the 2007-2008 season. She also fostered young talent Zhou Yang, who dominated the 1000m and 1500m in women's short track speed skating from 2008 to 2010. At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Wang took home the 500m and 1000m gold, while Zhou won the 1500m gold. Chinese women's team unprecedentedly swept all four short track speed skating events in Vancouver. Their four gold medals made Li the most decorated Chinese coach in one Olympic edition. In 2018, Wu Dajing, also coached by her, clinched an Olympic gold in men's 500m.

In January 2019, Li became a member of the Chinese Olympic Committee, and she left her short track coaching post in May of that same year. However, she took the helm of the country's speed skating national training team last November.

Li Yan (up) celebrates with Wu Dajing following his win in the men's 500m short track speed skating final at the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018 in the Republic of Korea, on February 22, 2018 (XINHUA)

Beyond the Olympics

"You can expect us to achieve something," Li said of Team China before the Beijing 2022 Games kicked off.

Soon on February 5, China won Olympic gold in the short track mixed relay, the first for China in the Beijing Games. The victory consolidated the nation's dominance in short track speed skating. Since Salt Lake City 2002, these Chinese skaters have earned at least one gold medal in each of the ensuing Winter Games.

"I can feel the hard work of China's winter sports athletes, as well as the overall development of sports in China," Li said. "Glory is temporary, but growth is eternal," she noted. "The better we become, the humbler we must be."

Li hopes the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will help promote skating across the country and the establishment of an upgraded training system. "If we want to develop the discipline, we must create something of value for future generations," she said.

The celebrated coach added the many ice and snow rinks built and renovated would go to waste without public participation. How to make ice and snow events attain sustainable development in the post-Olympic era will be one of her main priorities. "It used to be that only children in northeast China had exposure to ice and snow, whereas today, children from the south, too, can get a taste—that's a good start," Li said China is already witnessing progress with the hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics and the country's commitment to engage 300 million people in winter sports.

"The charm of ice and snow sports not only lies in their 'good looks,' but also in the excitement when participating. We hope that more people will get to experience this firsthand," she said, adding that the government, educational institutions, industrial associations and the market should all team up to expediate the popularization of winter sports. 

(Print Edition Title: Queen of the Ice)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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