Slippery start to steep learning curve

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Despite leaving the World Cup season opener empty-handed, the Chinese short-track speed skating team hailed the Canadian leg of the series as a valuable drill for its young roster entering the new Olympic cycle.

A perennial title contender on the International Skating Union's elite series, Team China's medal-less meet in Montreal, the first of six stops on the 2022-23 World Cup calendar, provoked something of a backlash from fans bemused by the sudden slump following the glorious campaign at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.

Zhang Tianyi (L) of China competes during the men's 5000m relay quarterfinal of the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating series in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, Nov. 26, 2021. (Xinhua/Zheng Huansong)

New head coach Zhang Jing, however, insists that the results should be viewed in perspective given the lack of experience of her team, which mostly consisted of World Cup debutants.

"For a reshuffled team like us, our goal for this season is to help our young skaters gain as much international experience as possible, help them improve their competitiveness on the highest level and mature quickly," said Zhang, who took over China's decorated short-track program in September after ending a highly successful 10-year tenure as head coach of the Hungarian team.

"During the course of this World Cup meet, our young skaters competed aggressively and were not overawed by the big stage.

"They skated to their best level at the moment, which I was quite pleased with. Yet, their lack of competitiveness and experience were also exposed — in a positive way."

Looking toward the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy and beyond, the Chinese national program called up 15 skaters for the new season, with only three of those possessing Olympic experience. Veterans such as Olympic champions Wu Dajing, Ren Ziwei and Fan Kexin were omitted from the squad and allowed to rest up on their own plans.

With no Team China skaters managing even a top-three finish in Montreal, where 11 gold medals from individual and relay events were up for grabs, the meet was a reality check for the squad.

Three-time Olympic champion Suzanne Schulting spearheaded the Netherlands' dominant start to the 2022-23 campaign. The Dutch women swept all five golds, including the 3,000m relay, over two days. The men's races saw fierce battles in all five disciplines with traditional powers South Korea and Canada jostling for supremacy by fielding experienced skaters in their prime.

Far from being disheartened, Zhang expects the young Chinese squad to mature with time.

"The youngsters' weaknesses were exposed. Up against the world's elite, we had expected that," said Zhang, a native of Northeast China's Jilin province, who represented the country at the 1994 Winter Games as an athlete.

"We've seen the gap as well as the potential. We fell down but we know the direction going forward. We have faith in our team that they will only grow stronger by competing on the international stage one stop after another."

Lin the focus

The appearance of former South Korean skater Lim Hyo-jun, who now represents China as "Lin Xiaojun" after completing a naturalization process, garnered huge attention in Montreal, where he suited up for his adopted country internationally for the first time.

After missing out on the international stage for over three years, Lin proved he still belongs in the elite ranks in Saturday's quarterfinals of the men's 1,500m — an event he won at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games in South Korea. Lin clocked 2 min, 17.381 sec to finish second in his group. He also passed the preliminary round in the 1,000m and helped China advance into semifinals of the 2,000m mixed relay on the same day.

However, Lin's collision with a Japanese skater in the final lap of their mixed relay semifinal on Sunday forced him to withdraw from his remaining individual races and resulted in Team China being penalized. Lin walked off the ice with an apparent pain in his lower back.

Zhang later confirmed that the injury was not serious but Lin's availability for the second Cup leg in Salt Lake City, Utah, will be determined by a further medical check.

"He has a strong desire to compete but we are as yet undecided when he can resume competitions. The pain is easing off and he is recovering," Zhang said.

Born in southeastern Korean city Daegu, Lin shot to fame in his Olympic debut in 2018 by claiming 1,500m gold in 2:10.458 and a bronze (39.919) in the 500m, which was won by Chinese veteran Wu.

The 26-year-old six-time world champion decided to switch nationality to represent China following a series of legal disputes with the sport's governing body in Korea in 2019. However, he was ineligible to race at Beijing 2022, having not spent sufficient time with his adopted national program prior to the Games.

With a plan to compete in all the Cup series' six legs plus the Four Continents Championships (Salt Lake City) and the world championships (Seoul), Zhang plans to toughen up her young team on the international circuit.

"Our level of intensity in training was not quite up to the standards of the sport's best at the moment," said Zhang. "We'd like to make it up by pushing our skaters in real competitions, taking each race as a learning experience to improve."

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