Skate leap forward

By Lin Kan Hsuan Source:Global Times Published: 2013-12-11 20:38:01

A girl laces up her skates prior to hitting the ice. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Beijing hosted one of the most memorable Summer Olympics in modern history in 2008, but now the city's attention is firmly focused on hosting an equally impressive Winter Olympics in 2022. In November, China launched its bid to host the Games along with the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics. If successful, Beijing will stage the ice events while Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province, will host the snow events.

China's breakthrough moment in figure skating came at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, when Zhao Hongbo and wife Shen Xue won gold in the pairs event. The duo became the first Chinese figure skaters to win a medal in the sport at the Games, but they are unlikely to be the last judging by growing participation among youngsters in figure skating.

"We expect China will host both the Winter Olympics and Winter Youth Olympics," said Dong Bing, manager and figure skating instructor at the Century Star Ice Skating Center in Haidian district.

"We've successfully developed two national-level figure skaters in Zhang Yiyi and Wang Xuehan. Both of them are already in Sochi, Russia, preparing for the upcoming Winter Olympics in February."

Despite being only 35, Dong is already a veteran figure skater who has helped spearhead the sport's rise in China.

"It has been obvious that more people have been learning figure skating in recent years, especially adults. The most common reason is that they are intrigued by maneuvers they see performed by professional figure skaters, and are eager to give it a try themselves. Also, increased media coverage has raised public awareness."

A young boy builds his confidence skating around a rink under the watchful eye of his instructor. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Dreams on ice

The secret to learning to figure skate is hitting the ice at an early age, said Dong, who began skating when she was just 5. "To become a skillful skater, children need to begin practicing before they are 7," she said. "The younger they begin to practice, the quicker they will progress."

Zhang Yunxuan, 11, only began practicing a month ago, but already skates with the grace and poise of prodigy.

"I started roller skating when I was in preschool. From first to third grade, I was a member of the roller skating team at my primary school," she said. "After that, my mom introduced me to figure skating because she is fond of watching the sport's elegant gliding movements."

Asked if she finds figure skating a chore or fun, Zhang explained that it has become her passion. "I practice here for an hour every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and am now learning to spin," she said.

Cindy Wei, 13, a student at the International School of Beijing in Shunyi district, began ice skating when she was 4. Although it was her parents' decision for her to take up the sport, she said she is keen to continue learning to hone her skills. "I personally consider myself a tough girl. I have to overcome many difficulties [on ice], falling down and then getting on my feet again and again," she said.

Wei credits figure skating with making her more mature and mentally tougher than her peers away from the rink.

At the Century Star Ice Skating Center, skaters are divided into two groups - elementary and advanced - which are further split into a total of eight grades. Zhang is currently at the seventh-grade elementary level.

"Her roller skating experience has helped her master the most rudimentary skills, which has allowed her to advance more rapidly than other kids," Dong said.

But along with all the children skating for fun, there are also youngsters pushed into the sport and burdened by their parents' dreams.

"Some parents send their children here to fulfill their own ambitions. It seems to torture these talented yet reluctant youngsters," said Dong.

"The process of practicing is always painstaking and repetitive. To successfully land a triple-axel jump, you have to practice it at least 50 times daily for six months," she added, referring to a maneuver that involves three midair revolutions.

Shen Jie, a novice figure skater who took up the sport in May, braces for a parallel twist at the Century Star Ice Skating Center on December 10. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Never too late to bloom

China has dozens of annual figure skating competitions for amateurs and professionals on provincial and national scales. The General Administration of Sport, the government agency responsible for sport, also holds biannual competitions to grade aspiring professional figure skaters from around the country.

Despite being at an age when many professional figure skaters consider retirement, Shen Jie is already eyeing her next step toward professionalism.

"I'm still on my way. I'd love to take the national exam or participate in an amateur competition in the future," she said.

Shen, a 27-year-old white-collar worker who started figure skating in May, became interested in the sport while searching for a unique way to keep fit. Bored of running on treadmills at the gym and frustrated by her inflexibility at yoga, she turned to the ice rink - and never looked back.

"I was a total newbie who had never even ice skated before I took it up. The reason I came here was to get a good workout, plus I live nearby the rink," she said. 

"The first time I skated, I held my instructor's hand tightly and slowly walked around the edge of the rink. After I walked for a while, I gradually found my sense of balance."

Shen has already mastered the camel spin, an intermediate skill whereby a skater spins on one leg with the other extended parallel to the ice.

"I practice twice a day on weekdays and from 10 am to 6 pm on weekends. I'm currently practicing the waltz jump, which is a stepping stone to many more complex maneuvers," she said, referring to a jump that involves a midair 180-degree spin. 

Xu Jie, a 22-year-old bank employee who aspires to turn professional as a figure skater, said age is no barrier to flourishing in the sport.

"It's surprising how many of my friends don't realize that even adults can learn figure skating. They think the sport is just like gymnastics, whereby you must start learning it at a young age," she said.

No fear of falling

The skating center hires out ice skates and protective equipment, including gloves, helmets and elbow, hip and knee pads. The most important safety precaution, however, is the technique for falling.

"In the first class, the instructor teaches skaters how to fall safely," said Xu, who has been skating since she was 9. "Falling on ice isn't as dangerous as you might think because you can slide, which cushions the impact a bit."

Xu was inspired to take up figure skating after watching stars of the sport compete on TV.

"I've wanted to learn figure skating since I was very young," she said. "My favorite TV spectacle has always been figure skating."

Xu eventually realized her dream at 19, when she passed the second grade at a national exam in a milestone she regards as the "happiest moment" of her involvement in the sport.

She encourages beginners not to be put off by the fear of falling down, which is an inescapable part of figure skating.

"To some extent, the less you worry about tumbling, the quicker you'll improve your skills," Xu said. "Everybody hates to fall down, but it's inevitable. When you accept the possibility of tumbling, you'll be mentally stronger."

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