Next-gen stars speed into spotlight

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, April 6, 2023
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Tested on the international stage over the 2022-23 season, China's next-gen short-track speedsters are gaining fast on the world's best but still need to level up their mental toughness to live up to their Olympic ambitions.

Following a season in which most of them made their World Cup debuts, the young skaters on head coach Zhang Jing's roster stole the show at last week's Chinese national championships.

Leading the surge was Sun Long, who beat a strong field that included Olympic champions Liu Shaolin and Liu Shaoang to win both the men's 500m and 1,500m titles on Saturday.

The victories were all the sweeter for Sun considering his error-strewn campaign at last year's Winter Olympics on the same rink at the Capital Indoor Stadium.

"It's been a year. The atmosphere in this arena feels as exciting as ever, yet I've come back a stronger and more mature athlete," Sun said of his improvement over the past 13 months since his fall cost his team the lead in the men's 5,000m relay final at Beijing 2022.

"It's been quite a challenging process emotionally, but I never thought about giving up. I really appreciate the support from everyone when I was down and I will keep going for greater progress," said the 22-year-old native of Changchun, Jilin province.

Racing head-to-head against the Liu brothers, who won 5,000m relay gold for Hungary at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Sun showed poise and balance to withstand strong charges from the stars and his fellow young teammates in both finals.

The experience gained from competing against the world's best in all six legs of the 2022-23 World Cup season and the subsequent world championships has been invaluable for Sun and his peers, who look set to continue in the glorious tradition of China's decorated short-track national program.

"For a lot of them it was a totally new challenge. Our aim was just to expose them to elite-level international competition as much as possible," said Zhang, who selected a young roster for the past season with veteran skaters like Olympic champions Wu Dajing, Ren Ziwei and Fan Kexin taking a break from the sport.

"I am proud to see their improvement from being overwhelmed by their foreign rivals at early-season stops to racing more confidently and pushing for final appearances on the season's finishing stretch," said Zhang, who took over Team China last summer after returning from her highly successful coaching stint in Hungary.

Zhang, though, stressed that the youngsters remain works in progress and need to raise their games mentally.

"Physically and technically, the gap takes a year or two to make up, but in terms of the mental toughness and composure needed to prevail in such a highly competitive sport it takes much longer to get there," said the former national team skater.

Led by Zhang, the young Team China collected 10 medals, including three golds, from the six-stop Cup series from October to February, before bringing home two more relay medals at the worlds in Seoul last month.

After coming from behind to win the women's 500m at the championships on Saturday, 18-year-old Beijing native Wang Ye also credited the tough World Cup season for her progression to the fast lane.

"It's quite a learning curve for me to make adjustments on the track, to handle sudden situations in a race and to gauge myself against the top skaters in the world," said Wang.

"There's still a big gap between me and the top skaters in the world over the short distances. I'd like to keep my focus on each and every day's training, make one solid step at a time and try to make more progress."

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