Wu Dajing: Take every race like last one
It takes less than one minute to become an Olympic champion on ice, but it will take much longer to become a champion of one's own life – China's short-track star skater Wu Dajing knows the journey well.
Wu, the defending champion of men's 500 meters, failed to enter the championship-deciding final A of the event on Sunday night after ranking third in a fierce semifinal.
Liu Shaoang of Hungary won the gold medal in 40.338 seconds, while Konstantin Ivliev from the Russian Olympic Committee bagged the silver in 40.431 and Canada's Steven Dubois took the bronze in 40.669.
Leading every lap, Wu finished the first in the final B race.
Pressing his lips, the 27-year-old Wu, who wore a helmet with a pattern of his beloved Chinese fabled hero, the monkey king, waved his right arm to the crowd before leaving the rink at the Capital Indoor Stadium.
This could be his last race for an individual Olympic event.
Wu became the first Chinese male skater to win an Olympic gold medal in short track following his victory in the 500m event at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. He currently holds the world record of the event with 39.505 seconds.
"It's a great pity. I have prepared for this for so many years. Everyone in the semifinals has a chance to finish on the podium. But no matter the result is good or bad, I can accept it," Wu told Xinhua at the mixed zone in a rather composed way, in a sharp contrast to his emotional post-match interview just several days ago.
Choked by the "hundreds of feelings" as he described, the captain of China's short track skating team was almost lost for words at the mixed zone after helping China win gold in the 2,000m mixed team relay on February 5.
But he missed out the podium to finish fourth in men's 1,000-meter on February 7, which built up the public expectations even higher for Sunday's race.
Noting that he cares little about whether he could defend his title in the 500m event, Wu said he focused on enjoying the competition itself.
"I'm taking every race like my last one, because I don't know if I'll be able to compete at the next Olympics, or any international competition later," he said.
A FOUR-YEAR SLOG
Injuries have haunted Wu all along the way from Pyeongchang to Beijing.
A recurring back injury significantly disrupted his training plan since he fell down onto the rink at the 2019 World Cup event in Shanghai.
His pressure was mounting after finishing individual events in the first three stops of the 2021-22 ISU short-track speed skating World Cup series with no medals.
In a response to fans' suggestions and even criticism, Wu wrote on social media, "I will make every day count in preparations toward the target."
He finally secured the chance to compete on home ice after winning gold in his specialty discipline – the men's 500m race at the final World Cup stop of the season in Dordrecht in November.
"Even last year, my goal was to stand in the rink at the Beijing Olympic Games as I wasn't sure if I was able to withstand tough training. I only set my goals higher when my condition recovered step by step," said Wu.
"So at least I achieved the first goal of being able to stand here, because it's my third Olympics and it's equally important for me to enjoy the competition and to get good results."
Chinese skating fans have also showed support to Wu, who is often seen as an icon of courage with ever-growing influence. On Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media platform where he has more than 9.9 million followers, encouraging posts have mushroomed under Wu's account.
"Dajing, you are excellent! We can all see your dedication and efforts. Be in good form and continue your short track speed skating journey!" a follower wrote.
Wu also seems to be more tolerant to himself and his failures.
"Four years ago, I was probably more eager to express myself through the Games rather than to the enjoy the Games, and I was anxious and impatient sometimes," said Wu on Sunday.
"Maybe now I'm more mature with a completely different mentality on training, goals, and the good or the bad."
"MY FEET ARE UGLY"
Last week, millions of people were impressed by Wu's perseverance as a video clip went viral online, in which Wu, uncovering his swollen ankles and deformed, calloused feet, said in a relaxed tone, "My feet are ugly... a result of years of training."
Inspired by Chinese world champion short-track skaters including Yang Yang, who won China's historic first Winter Olympic gold at Salt Lake City 20 years ago, Wu started his career at 10 years old in his hometown of Jiamusi, in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.
"I watched a short-track skating race on TV and I told my parents I wanted to learn it, because it was so cool," he recalled.
In Jiamusi, a city with a population of 2.3 million, temperatures can drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius in winter, a natural gift for ice and snow sports but a test for newbies. To make the things worse, Wu could not find a standard rink back then in his hometown.
Instead, he joined an amateur team which trained on an outdoor rink. The young boy usually started his days at 4am in the dim light of dawn. Wu's mother Lyu Yuxiang rode a bicycle to carry her son, along with a pair of ill-fitting skates, to the rink.
The ice would become softer after sunrise, making it harder to skate fast. In addition, "I need to go to school after training," said Wu, explaining his early schedule.
"He fell down 107 times onto the ice in his first training session. I will never forget that," Lyu recalled.
An unshaken Wu was recruited by provincial teams first and then joined the national team in 2010 thanks to his outstanding performance at a national competition.
Training in an elite environment will do so much for a skater to excel at a higher level than a skater who is the best in a smaller rink.
However, he was assigned to be a training partner for the national women's team soon because of "being not good enough."
"It was a huge blow," said Wu, adding that he would never forget the feeling of standing by a bus and seeing off the senior teammates for an international competition.
Up and coming young skaters improve exponentially by being exposed more often to world-class talents. "I had no choice but to make a change," he said.
"I have goals, dreams and beliefs, so I fought tooth and nail," he said, "I paid attention to every move and every detail, watching training videos and making myself exhausted in every training session."
"I dare not relax at all," he said, trying to block out the mental chatter that said he could not do it. "Not fun."
Hard work pays off. He started to compete and be crowned at international events with four Olympic medals – one gold, two silvers and one bronze – in his hands before the Beijing Games.
"I think success is not all about luck or talent. It's always a result of hard work," said Wu.
Despite Sunday's loss, Wu said his heart is all on the next race – the men's 5,000m relay team event on Wednesday.
"Winning honor for my motherland is my biggest dream at Beijing 2022," he said. "We will go all out for the relay."