Rising track star

By Zhang Wen Source:Global Times Published: 2013-6-19 19:08:01

A two-time Olympian and graduate student, Zhang Peimeng works out at Tsinghua University. Photo: Li Hao/GT

A two-time Olympian and graduate student, Zhang Peimeng works out at Tsinghua University. Photo: Li Hao/GT

When he's not in training, Olympian and national record-holding sprinter Zhang Peimeng enjoys far less fast-paced activities. Besides studying for his master's, he likes to listen to soft, quiet music, such as French pianist Richard Clayderman or new age group Bandari.

"I enjoy the great power contained in the calmness," he said.

Zhang, 26, is trying his best to stay calm as the Chinese media now touts him as the country's next "flying man" after the star hurdler Liu Xiang. The sudden attention comes on the wings of Zhang setting three national records in the past three months.

This rising star is fresh off a 100-meter dash time of 10.09 seconds at a May 21 national sprint competition at the Bird's Nest. Although not as impressive as the 10.04 performance which shot him to instant stardom on April 27, he said it proved that he's not a flash in the pan and is now a solid, under-10.10 seconds competitor. He's also continued to have solid showings in 200-meter events. On May 18, he set a new outdoor track record for 200 meters, clocking in at 20.47. In March, he set a 200-meter indoor record with a time of 20.75.

Despite the exciting new times, Zhang said he doesn't enjoy the glare of the media, which expects him to become a star and rejuvenate China's neglected track and field events. He hates the pressure.

In his mind, there are so many runners in front of him - and in front of his gold medal dreams - who are almost impossible to surpass. The farthest one is Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who set the world record at 9.58 seconds.

"It's not that I don't have enough confidence. We are just not at the same level," he said.

Humble training grounds

Over the past six years, Zhang has trained under coach Li Qing with the Tsinghua University track and field team while pursuing his bachelor's and then master's degrees in sports training and teaching at Beijing Sports University.

Zhang completes 90-minute workouts six days a week, spent mostly at a chaotic, indoor track filled with students jogging, playing volleyball and doing other exercises.

Compared to the messy milieu of the gym and the thrill of the 100- and 200-meter events, Zhang's precise muscle and body training in the gym is calm and steady - the calm in the middle of the storm.

He lifts barbells, waves weighted ropes up and down and rolls a fitness ball under the guidance of coach Li to develop key muscle groups. Zhang rarely gets injured.

Li, a coach as well as a sports biomechanics professor at Tsinghua University, said that athletes on the Tsinghua University track and field team are different from those on the national or municipal teams.

"Their job is to win gold medals," Li said. "We only add brilliance to present splendor when we get lucky and win. [But] because we are a team of students, our athletes can have more options after graduation."

Although the team has little pressure on it, Zhang considers himself more ambitious than his team members.

"If I reach great heights through this, it can change my entire life," Zhang said. "I can use this stepping stone to reach a higher state and see what exciting things may happen. If you're just an average athlete, you don't have this excitement."

Olympic dreams

"The Olympic gold medal, I want it even in my dreams," reads Zhang's Weibo account. Having represented China at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Zhang still has his sights set on the gold, but sees so many who run faster, such as Bolt and American sprinter Justin Gatlin, whose personal best in the 100 meters is 9.79.

Zhang has become good friends with Gatlin after seeing him at international competitions over the years and bonding over dinner, but jokes that he can only beat him on an off-day.

Zhang can go into great detail about Gatlin's unique style. "He's shorter than me, and he takes fewer steps in the 100 meters, so every step he takes is larger than mine. You can imagine his power and strength," he said, full of admiration.

But Zhang believes he can shorten the distance between himself and top runners in the world by first breaking the 10-second threshold, which he hopes can also attract needed attention for China's sprinters, much like Liu Xiang did for hurdling.

"I think Chinese people are not familiar with and don't know how to appreciate [sprinting] events," coach Li said. "The country doesn't give many subsidies to short-distance running teams."

A natural talent

Winning national competitions is nothing new for Zhang. As early as 2007, he won the national championship for the 100 meter dash.

Li attributes Zhang's recent improvements to technique tweaks that tightened up Zhang's start, yet emphasized that this wasn't an overnight miracle, but rather a steady progression after years of training - and a natural gift.

Zhang was born into an athletic family in Beijing in 1987. His parents were both track and field athletes specializing in the high jump. But he didn't plan on becoming a professional runner at first. His family was even against that idea.

"They wanted me to focus on my schoolwork, but I rebelled," Zhang said. "I always fought with others like a typical teenage boy."

Sprinting first called to him in elementary school, as the track and field team was a way to avoid sitting in the classroom all day.

When competing in meets, he found himself among the top three finishers. With this encouraging start, and the fact that many teachers and coaches saw potential in him, Zhang matriculated at the high school attached to Renmin University - one of the best in Beijing.

Zhang also tried the high jump and hurdles, but none of them stuck. "I just love 100-meter sprinting. It's the fiercest, the most exciting," he said. "At the starting line, everyone has this fire in his belly."

"So many good things have happened to me because I can run fast. And as God has given me such a gift, I think I should make full use of it," he said.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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