Olympic medalist champions sailing

Updated: 2015-07-19 14:52

By Zhang Chunyan(China Daily Europe)

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 Olympic medalist champions sailing

Xu Lijia (second from left), Chinese gold medalist in women's Laser Radial class at the 2012 summer Olympics, tells her sailing story with other British sailing champions to children in Cardiff in June. Photos provided to China Daily

Gold-winning Xu Lijia pens book using simple language and cartoons to inspire new generation

Surrounded by several sailing personalities and facing dozens of British children, China's Olympic gold medalist Xu Lijia talks easily about her life and competition experience, relaxed and speaking in fluent English.

Xu, 28, tall and slim and wearing a gray-white sailing jacket, looks confident. As the only Chinese speaker, she smiles occasionally, responding easily to questions in English and making the children laugh.

The event called "Chat with Champions" is meant to encourage more children to take part in the sport of sailing. It is one of the activities in the Extreme Sailing Series, an international inshore racing circuit, which was held in Cardiff last month.

Xu became a big name in sailing after winning a bronze medal in the women's Laser Radial class at the 2008 summer Olympics in China and a gold medal in the same event at the 2012 summer Olympics in London.

"This time, I joined the Extreme Sailing Series in Cardiff as a judge," Xu says, adding that she will apply for the international jury certificates in sailing this year.

"I need to get through training, exams and also actual experience in at least six sailing races to apply for the certificate," she says.

"International sailing rules are very complicated. Mastering the rules helps me enrich the knowledge, know more about rules' schedule and judgment, know how to plan the tactics much better and more professional in the future sailing race."

"My goal is participating in more sailing races and sailing around the world," Xu says.

"With a long history, tradition and rich experience, Britain is an ideal place to embrace sailing. Many British people like sailing and join sailing clubs," she adds.

Since last May, Xu has been studying for a Master's degree in international management at the University of Southampton in England.

She chose Southampton because it has a very good sailing tradition. There are many sailing clubs situated on and around Southampton Water. "If you talk to any person on the road in Southampton, everyone knows something about sailing. And you can attend sailing course very easily there."

Unlike Britain, China is an emerging force in the world of competitive sailing. Qingdao, in Shandong province, hosted yachting and sailing events for the Olympic Games in 2008 and also the Extreme Sailing Series in recent years.

However, getting yachting to become a mainstream sport in China will be far from plain sailing, partly because it is hardly known to most people, and also because of people's attitude generally toward professional sports.

"In Britain or other Western countries, it is a very credible, smart thing if you can become a professional sports person, and that's not the case in China. Many parents don't agree with what the sailing racers are doing. They think they should be working in an office," says Mark Turner, executive chairman of OC Sport, the global marketing company that organizes the Extreme series and other events such as running, cycling and winter sports.

Xu says that the sailing facilities in China's coastal cities now are well-equipped, adding "What we lack is the professional philosophy and attitude."

"I hope I can be a bridge between China and Britain, introducing the advanced sailing experience to China, to Chinese young people," she says, adding that she expected her efforts could save time for the development of the sport in China.

Xu also says that she really enjoys the process of learning English and British style and culture during her studies in Britain.

"I've learned a lot of my skills and information through English," Xu says. "It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that language learning has marked every progression in my career."

She is also good at communicating with other racers, audience and press. She shares that ability with two other Shanghai-born famous athletes - Yao Ming, a basketball player, and Liu Xiang, a 110 meter hurdler.

One thing they all have in common is that they have benefited from their sports, which are not traditional strengths for Chinese, and they then put lots of effort into promoting their sports in China.

Xu was born in 1987 in Shanghai. She started swimming at four and attended a sports school in the Changning district of Shanghai. When she was 10, Xu was chosen by coach Zhang Jing to train for sailing.

"I liked sailing early on because I found it is more interesting than swimming," she says. Just a year after she started sailing, Xu won the 1998 Chinese National Championships held in Hong Kong.

Xu won her first international gold medal in the 1999 Asian Championships. She then won the gold medals in the 2001 and 2002 World Championships, and the 2002 Asian Games, all in the Optimist class.

She had to overcome difficulties. When she was 12, Xu and her team ran into a heavy rainstorm that capsized their boats during a training exercise off southeast China's Fujian province.

Wind speed reached 20 meters per second (45 mph), resulting in 17-meter (56 ft) high waves, capsizing their boats. They were stranded for more than two hours before managing to return to base. Luckily, there were no lives or equipment lost.

In 2004, Xu qualified to compete in the Athens Olympic Games but had to pull out when a tumor was discovered in her leg and had to be operated on before it turned malignant.

One year later, she began racing Laser Radial class dinghies after the International Sailing Federation decided to replace the Europe class with Lasers in the women's sailing competition of the Olympics. In 2006, she won gold medals at the World Championships in Los Angeles and the Asian Games in Doha.

In March 2008, Xu won a silver medal at the World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. In August, she won her first Olympic medal, a bronze at the Qingdao regatta of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

After winning a gold medal at the 2009 Chinese National Games, Xu took a long break from the sport in order to recover from her back injuries and to commence her studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, majoring in business management.

"I think I needed to learn and expand my knowledge, so I began my studies," she says.

She resumed training in 2011 and won a silver medal in 2012 at the World Championships held in Germany. On Aug 6, 2012, Xu won the gold medal in the women's Laser Radial race at the Summer Olympics. It was China's second Olympic gold in sailing.

Partly because of her inspiring story of overcoming multiple problems to become an Olympic champion, Xu was chosen over many well-known athletes to be China's flag bearer at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.

After that, Xu participated in many events in China to promote in sailing, hoping to change Chinese people's impressions of the sport.

On July 13, Xu launched her book Learning Sailing, Follow Olympic Champion in Shanghai. "I cooperated with a young Chinese female cartoonist to prepare the book. I use simple language and she uses lovely cartoons to describe how to learn sailing.

"This book is suitable for Chinese children and also any Chinese people who are interested in sailing."

She says: "In my mind, sailing brings me lots of happiness. I miss all the time on a boat which allows me to have peace of mind, and makes me know how to cherish life, cherish everything."