China's Gao skates in dream that comes true on home ice
Over the past four years, Gao Tingyu has had recurrent dreams about skating on the ice, sometimes without rivals, and every so often, finishing on the podium.
"I really want to change the color of my medal, and we'll see in four years," Gao said firmly after claiming a bronze at PyeongChang 2018.
The 24-year-old speed skater made it, and stunned the world in doing so.
He beat a strong field of world champions and World Cup title holders to win the men's 500m speed skating competition in 34.32 seconds at Beijing 2022 on Saturday, becoming the first-ever Chinese male Olympic gold medalist in the discipline.
"It's completely a dream come true," exclaimed Gao, who draped himself in China's national flag, with tears in his eyes as spectators at the National Speed Skating Oval rose to their feet with loud applause and cheers.
Buoyed by an encouraging World Cup season, China's fastest speed skaters were resolved to steal the show on home ice in the sport usually dominated by Europeans.
Gao, who was drafted into the national team in 2016 and made rapid progress in recent years, is the odds-on favorite for the 500m title as he refreshed his personal bests time and again. He also holds the national record of 33.83 seconds.
Gao won one gold and one silver in men's 500m during this season's World Cup tour, and flexed his muscles by lowering the track record to 34.265 seconds and leaving Japanese star Tatsuya Shinhama and former champion Laurent Dubreuil of Canada behind.
"I was not in my peak condition, and it's just a test of my training," said Gao of his Word Cup victory.
"I still need to improve on every technique and skill and my main goal is to make the podium at Beijing 2022," he added, noting that the home Winter Olympics was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that placed him under extra pressure, but he would "turn it into motivation."
Gao and skeleton athlete Zhao Dan carried the national flag for China at the Games opening ceremony on February 4, an experience that made Gao even more excited.
"It's something I've always been dreaming of and it makes me full of power to showcase my best form in the competition," he said.
The dark horse did not burst into tears at the PyeongChang 2018 Games. "Because I want to save it for next time," he said, believing that he could do better and contend for the gold to match Zhang Hong, China's first Olympic champion in speed skating at the 2014 Sochi Games.
"He is my little brother and we've practiced together for a long time," said Zhang, who was thrilled to see his younger teammate achieve a breakthrough. "Skating on the home ice and enjoying the moment. He made it!"
Training makes Perfect
"Training is foremost, and then is your mindset," said Gao ahead of entering the Olympic Village.
Born and raised in China's northeast province of Heilongjiang which features cold weather and is a cradle of Chinese speed skating, Gao took up the sport in 2004.
"I loved the feelings of being free and enjoyed the magic of skating the first time I stepped on the ice," he recalled.
And his success was never pushed by his parents. "The only thing I expect him to do, is to stay safe and healthy," said Zhang Xiaoli, Gao's mother. "The results can be either good or bad...Just let it be."
But Zhang worried a lot when her son experienced a serious hip injury in June 2020. "I had to be very careful in training and receive medical treatment every day for more than eight months. It was really a tough time for me," Gao said.
Yet the big-hearted young man also likes to joke about his own setbacks. "I am terrible at remembering things, so I tend to forget about my mishaps."
Gao is also a sleep enthusiast and attaches great importance to sleeping quality, so wherever he goes, he will take with him a latex pillow to avoid a stiff neck.
Before he goes to bed, Gao always watches video clips of skaters who break world records and Olympic records, hoping to emulate others.
And then, he just drifts off to sleep and begins dreaming of skating.