On February 26, severe haze shrouded North China for the seventh day, and the entirety of Beijing City was like a giant designated smoking room.
The photo shoot was scheduled at four o’clock in the afternoon, and while walking to the gym, we were guessing when training would end for the day; six the latest—in the end, we agreed that this was the correct answer.
In reality, even at seven o’clock in the evening, the gym was still quite a bustling scene, and all we could do was sit by the wall and try to look for the silhouette that seemed to be Yao from a distance.
This Fujian girl who just had her nineteenth birthday is the protagonist of our story today.
In the new Olympic quad, with Jiang Yuyuan, Deng Linlin, Huang Qiushuang, and Sui Lu retiring, Yao Jinnan became the only athlete on the team who has been to the Olympics. She’s well-rounded and mature, which naturally makes her second-to-none for the leading position on the Chinese Women’s Gymnastics National Team.
An Imperfect Plan of Escape
About how Yao got into the sport of gymnastics, there’s a story that’s popular on the internet—daddy Yao said, when baby Jinnan was three, four years old, she loved to climb up to high places, for doors that are about a meter wide, she would spread her arms and legs and climb up to the top like a spider. When she succeeded, she would yell excitedly, “am I awesome or what?!”
And so, the awesome baby Yao and her twin sister Yao Jianan was sent to a sports school by their father. After two years, her older sister gave up on training and went back to academics.
Even though she stayed in the sports school and eventually entered the Fujian Provincial Team without a hitch, Yao never quite found a love for the sport. Whenever she’s tired and unhappy, she’d always find a way to escape.
Every time she runs back home, her family and her coach must convince her with both sticks and carrots in order to bring her back to the team, and her training would usually be delayed for a long time. For a sport like gymnastics, which requires systematic training, it has undoubtedly affected her progress.
Because of her short time training professionally and her lack of understanding for proper techniques, when the girls her age were making a name for themselves at the 2009 National Games, Yao was hardly a name on people’s minds.
It wasn’t until a competition in Shanghai, and in a moment of coincidence, that she came into the sight of National Team coaches Wang Qunce and Xu Jinglei.
“Coach Wang, look at that kid.” When Xu Jinglei saw Yao, it was as if she found a treasure, and Wang Qunce’s gaze followed where her pointed—that was the first time he saw Yao, and it was the chance meeting that changed Yao’s fate.
Wang Qunce entered the National Team in 1989 to coach, and has been a gymnastics coach for a few decades. His experience tells him that the girl in front of him is a jade in the rough.
“Gymnastics needs a certain flare, a spirit. When she performs a skill, it was the way that I’ve imagined it. She hasn’t had intensive professional training and she could still bring out this kind of performance. It means she has talent.”
Wang Qunce went to the Fujian coaches to learn more about this young gymnast, but surprisingly, the first sentence out of the coach’s mouth was, “that kid? She’s been training for a few years, but she always runs away.”
Wang Qunce thought, whether or not she runs or not is unimportant; the important thing is that this child has potential.
In 2010, Yao was selected into the National Training Team. However, once official training started, coach Wang was dumbfounded—the little girl’s basics were worse than he thought. She could do a few back flips, but they were “circus level.”
More headaches came soon after. Perhaps the training was too intensive and the pressure got to her. Baby Jinnan was in emotional turmoil again.
One day, Wang Qunce received a phone call that informed him that Yao was missing, and even more concerning was that the allowance given to her by the Provincial Team was missing as well. It was in the dead of winter and when she left, she was only wearing a tracksuit. The two coaches were sent into a panic. As soon as Wang Qunce hung up, he rushed back to the training center from his home in the suburbs, looking for her at the nearby malls, train stations, and even airports. Xu Jinglei took some team members and went out looking as well, but nobody could find traces of Yao anywhere. Running out of ideas, everyone came back to the training center to wait for her in case she came back. By then, it was already dark, and it was getting colder and colder outside.
At about eight o’clock at night, a security guard came rushing in. “I think I found the girl,” he said. “You guys should hurry and see if it’s her.” Apparently Yao didn’t go far—she was hiding in the Track and Field facility, at the end of the tracks where a pile of mats were kept as buffers for Liu Xiang when he finishes a sprint. When she got hungry and cold at night, and no longer as angry as she had been earlier in the day, she came out looking for food.
Former gymnast Liu Hou tried to explain from the perspective of someone who has been through it all. “I think it’s the pressure…in the gym, everyone is very serious, so there’s always a tension in the air, and some kids doesn’t know to channel it in a positive way, and instinctively they turn to avoidance.”
Many would ask why didn’t the coaching staff gave up on Yao, who repeatedly attempted to run away?
“I actually like athletes with this kind of personalities. It could actually give her an advantage, but it’s key how the coach directs this rebelliousness and strong will into something positive,” Wang Qunce explained.
A Game for the Brave
Time flew, her repertoire of skills grew quietly, and with a blink of an eye, it was 2011—this is the best year of her athletic career so far. She had few injuries, she was making leaps and bounds with her training, and she had impressive achievements.
Yao was “beyond happy,” and coach Wang asked her, “are you still gonna run away?”
She didn’t speak and only snickered sheepishly at the question.
Coach Wang told her, “when we go home, just follow our training regiment. I promise you that when the World Championships come at the end of the year, you’ll be ‘awesome’.”
Sure enough, Yao, who was on the National Team for only a year, became the brightest star of the Chinese Team at the World Championships in Tokyo.
She performed on all four events and brought home all-around bronze and beam silver.
If everything went smooth sailing, according to Wang Qunce’s predictions, Yao would have peaked at the 2012 London Olympics and 2013 World Championships, reaching the height of her career.
In reality, as an all-around gymnast during the London Olympics quad, Yao had already been the pillar of Chinese Women’s Gymnastics Team.
However, nobody expected the sudden injuries that slowed down her progress.
At the nationals in May of 2012, Yao injured the ligaments in her right knee, and right before the London Olympics, she injured a ligament at the base of her left thigh.
Before the competition, she had four painful shots of anti-inflammatory and anesthetic. After the injection, the leg became numb and swollen. Usually, Yao wasn’t a child that could handle hardship well—in interviews, she always said that she admired the older teammates who battles injuries and come out on top, and that she herself might not be so brave.
However, in front of her Olympic dreams, she stepped up.
In the prelims, an injured Yao made mistakes on beam, floor exercise, and vault, and finished out of contention for the all-around final. In the team final, the Chinese team made one mistake after another and finished fourth.
Before the vault event and during warm ups, Yao fell unexpectedly. Afterwards, she revealed that it’s because by the time she ran to the end, she couldn’t lift her feet. Coach Wang, who was present at the time, was so scared that his shirt was soaked with cold sweat. He asked her, “are you sure you can do this? If you feel unsure, you don’t have to.”
“I can do it,” she replied, and pushed through her pain.
“It’s such an important competition, and I’m not worried that her will and her character would falter. I believe in her. However, I’m worried about her injury after the competition.”
After the competition, coach Wang was in tears. He told Yao “thank you,” for competing for her team through injury and hardship.
Yao Jinjin’s Golden Dream
Wang Qunce gave Yao a nickname: “Yao Jinjin.” He joked that maybe it would change Yao’s fate as the name Yao Jinnan sounded like “it’s difficult to get gold.”
It seemed like the superstition has merit, as even though her difficulty was at the top of the world with the Mo Salto on uneven bars, she had difficulty with the routine at the World Championships. By then, it was the fourth year of Yao being on the national team, and she had yet to become a world champion.
Even so, coach Wang is confident about Yao’s future. He believes that as long as they adjust her training with thoughtfulness and care while preventing further injuries, not only would she be in contention for world titles—she would still be a hopeful for the Olympics in Rio.
In 2016, Yao will be 21. For a Chinese gymnastics athlete, it’s about “retirement age.” However, nothing is set in stone, since Sui Lu—also on Yao’s coaching team lead by Wang and Xu—got her Olympic silver at 20.
Aside from that, the coaching team is adjusting her uneven bars routine to be the top of the class again. At the same time, coach Wang and Xu are confident in their knowledge of her personality. Coach Wang said, “she’s like a child who doesn’t take anything too seriously.”
For example, in the gym, when the lead coach Huang Yubin walks through, out of respect, most team members will stop what they are doing for a greeting—even Olympic champions like Zou Kai are no exceptions. However, Yao is always off in her own world, treating it as if it’s something happening in outer space.
Another example is when the London Olympics were over and Yao went back to her home in Fuzhou, Yongtai. The local county CCP secretary and other government leaders carried 50 thousand dollars in cash to visit her and her family. Her parents were very nervous, and greeted the entourage at the door. The government leaders came in and Yao was nowhere to be found. It turns out that she was still sleeping in. Her father went to her to wake her up, saying, “get up! The County Secretary is here to see you!”
Half-asleep, she said, “oh, let him see me then. I’m too sleepy to get up.” She turned, and went back to sleep.
It’s easy to misread her behavior as being a “diva,” but only those who knew her closely understand that she really has no concepts of a lot of things, and the outward manifestation ends up one of indifference. Coach Wang feels that this “indifference” and purity in character could be fostered into powerful mental qualities on the competition floor.
After years of working together from morning to night, and with the gradual maturity that comes with age, the two coaches had a better grasp of her personality:
“You have to tell her: right now, it is the most difficult moment in the history of Chinese women’s gymnastics teams. And you are the only one who’s been to the Olympics and had a decent result. You must set a good example, and behave like a world-class athlete in training for your young teammates. And then she’ll realize “oh wait, I actually am a world-class athlete.”
“You have to tell her: You have to work hard and become the team’s rock and pillar, leading the younger girls forward. She’ll say ‘No, I can’t do that, I can’t lead them, the girls don’t listen to me.’ But afterwards, she will think about it, and realize that ‘oh, I guess you are right.’ And slowly, she takes more initiative with responsibilities. Sometimes, she doesn’t really know what to do, and she comes to us.”
When the photo shoot was over, it was almost seven thirty. The last bus to the had dorm already left, and the gym gradually quieted down. The Wall of Champions suddenly looked solemn and sacred, and from there, Yao is only a step away.
Article by Wang Jinging
Photos by Ren Tao
Translation by 16-233