Skaters ready to carve out more glory

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Ren Ziwei (front) of China competes during the Final A of the Men's 5000m Relay event at 2019-2020 ISU Short Track World Cup in Dresden, Germany, Feb 9, 2020. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

With the glorious home Games now part of history, China's winter sports national program has ushered in a new Olympic cycle with fresh faces on and off the ice bolstering its 2026 medal ambitions.

As the country's most decorated winter sports team, the Chinese short-track speed skating squad kicked off its preparation for the next Winter Games in Milan and Cortina d'Ampezzo on Monday in Beijing, beginning with a conditioning training camp overseen by one of the sport's maestros.

Zhang Jing, a former Chinese skater and ex-coach of the Hungarian national team, was introduced as the camp's general consultant-in charge of training planning and performance assessment. Her appointment raises the likelihood she will return home to take the helm for Team China after helping mold Hungary into a global power in the sport over the past decade.

The coaching team for the new Olympic cycle, however, is not yet finalized, according to team manager Liu Chenyu, who stressed on Monday that official appointments will be announced in due course.

"The goal of this training camp is to assess the physical conditioning of all athletes capable of making the national team roster for the new season," said Liu.

"All athletes will have to complete a variety of training assignments and undergo tests to try to earn as many points as possible in a ranking system for preseason national team selection," he said.

Led by two-time Olympic champion Ren Ziwei, a total of 116 athletes from across the nation have signed up for the 30-day camp, where Zhang's tailored training regimen-which incorporates everything from stretching to core-strength work to cardio sessions-is expected to challenge them to the max.

"It's about getting us ready physically for the start of the season after a long break since the Olympics," said Ren, who skated the anchor leg of China's gold-winning mixed relay team and won the men's 1,000m title at Beijing 2022.

"Offseason physical training off the track is key for success on the ice. Our quest for speed in competition comes from the foundations laid in summer. I'd like to set a good example for the younger athletes in the camp," said Ren, who as a reigning Olympic champion could have qualified directly for the squad but still chose to join the camp.

"It also offers me a great opportunity to work on my weaknesses in conditioning and to further rehab some of my old injuries before the season starts."

The 2022-23 short-track season opens on Oct 28 with a World Cup meet in Montreal, Canada, the first of six legs on the International Skating Union series.

Guided by a South Korean coaching team led by Kim Sun-tae, China's short-track skaters bagged two golds, one silver (men's 1,000m) and one bronze (women's 3,000m relay) medal from the home Games in February to contribute an impressive 12 golds to the country's all-time haul of 22 since its Winter Olympics debut in 1980 at the Lake Placid Games in New York.

As a Chinese national team member at the 1994 Winter Games, Zhang, who hails from Northeast China's traditional winter sports province Jilin, took over the Hungarian national program in 2012 and guided the central European country to its first Olympic gold medal in short-track speed skating-men's 5,000m relay-at Pyeongchang 2018 in South Korea.

Under her tutelage-renowned for its combination of rigorous training and lighthearted banter in Dongbeihua, or Northeast China dialect-the Hungarian team challenged South Korean and Chinese domination of the sport. The Hungary squad was led by brothers Sandor Liu Shaolin and Liu Shaoang, who were born to a Chinese father and a Hungarian mother.

After coaching Hungary to one gold and two bronze medals at Beijing 2022, Zhang strongly hinted at a Team China return, telling China News Service she fancied a "new start in a new environment to create new values".

With no sign of a contract extension for head coach Kim and his South Korean counterparts, Zhang's role at the camp has cemented her status as the favorite to land the high-profile job.

Another intriguing figure showing up at the camp's launch was former South Korean national team skater Lim Hyo-jun, who is now eligible to represent China internationally after completing a naturalization process before Beijing 2022.

After winning 1,500m gold and 500m bronze representing the host at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, Lim was involved in a legal dispute with a former South Korean teammate over sexual harassment allegations, which led to a one-year suspension imposed by the Korean Skating Union.

Citing fears that the legal battle could affect his career, Lim accepted China's offer to switch nationality in the hope of making it to Beijing 2022. However, he missed the Games after narrowly failing to meet an ISU requirement of a three-year gap since last racing for his native country at an international event (March 2019).

Lim already boasts over 1.6 million followers on Weibo even though he's never represented China in an official race yet, nor made any public appearances as an official Chinese national team athlete.

An exceptional distance skater, the 26-year-old native of Daegu, is expected to significantly enhance China's competitiveness in men's 1,500m and the relays.

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