Student-athlete Xie making the grade on world stage

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Xie Zhiyu arrived at the stadium alone as he prepared to make his debut at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest. Without his coach by his side, he had to enlist the help of a reporter to film a trial run, subsequently reviewing the footage to gauge his form.

Xie Zhiyu (front) crosses the finish line during the heats on Aug. 20, 2023. (Xinhua/Li Ming)

The 23-year-old hurdler bore more resemblance to a backpacking student than a professional athlete. Indeed, he only graduated from Peking University's School of Journalism and Communication in July, and he will continue to pursue his academic studies when he begins a master's degree at the university's Department of Physical Education.

It has been a busy summer of competition for Xie, who also made his debut at the Asian Athletics Championships and the World University Games in Chengdu. And his season's not over yet, with the Asian Games in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province beginning on Sept 23.

"It's been an unforgettable summer of highs and lows," he reflected.

Last Monday, Xie fell short of qualifying for the men's 400m hurdles final. However, this marked the first time in eight years that a Chinese athlete had advanced this far in the event.

Although disappointed not to reach the final, Xie stressed that his first world championships were about more than the results. "I'm absorbing, learning and enjoying the competition. It's been an amazing experience," he said.

China's team doctor commended the young national champion for his mature mindset. "In his first major global competition, he didn't make any demands before the race, which speaks volumes. Some athletes would request water or a massage before check-in, perhaps a sign of their unease. Not him. Everything went incredibly smoothly," said the doctor.

A grinning Xie admitted he's not usually afflicted by excessive nerves. "I sleep soundly at night," he said.

Dai Minghui, Xie's coach at Peking University, spoke highly of his pupil's discipline.

Their paths crossed at the 13th National Student Sports Games in 2017, where Xie secured gold in both the 400m and 400m hurdles as a high-school sophomore, just a year after transitioning to 400m.

Alerted to his talent, professional teams tried to recruit Xie. However, he ultimately chose Peking University, where Guo Zhongze, the men's 400m national-record holder, had once trained.

"I've always wanted to attend university, as it offers greater possibilities," Xie said.

Balancing training and coursework has proved challenging. Similar to his high-school days, track time is often limited to between just over an hour and three hours on weekdays.

Furthermore, he had to earn the same respect as his peers.

"Universities provide access to a wider range of people and experiences compared to professional teams," Xie remarked, noting that photojournalism was his favorite subject during his undergraduate years.

Having spent five years at Peking University, Xie was resolute in his goal to become a university teacher.

At the Chengdu Universiade, he secured his first medal at a global championship, earning a bronze in the 400m hurdles with a personal best of 48.78 seconds, a mere 0.08 sec away from qualifying for the Paris Olympics.

With Paris 2024 within touching distance, he is determined to continue his upward curve on the track.

"I will work even harder back home. Hopefully I can qualify for the Olympics," he said.

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