From this sixteen-year-old girl, Guangxi Gymnastics may once again achieve the greatness they were once known for.
Bai Yawen was relatively unknown in the gymnastics world until she claimed the balance beam silver at the gymnastics national championships in Nanning. Leading up to the World Championships in October, more and more expectations are being placed on her shoulders, though she has a long way to go to success.
The Nanning City Sports School was where Bai’s gymnastics career started. During the interview with reporters, her first coach Li Qunfang revealed the secret to Yawen’s success: natural-born talent, a love for the sport, and perseverance.
The Little Girl Who Cuts in Line
Inside the gym of the Nanning City Sports School, even though numerous fans are working at their max capacity, the facility was still hot and humid. Children worked on various equipment under the directions of their coaches, and though it looked like hard work, there are still smiles on some kids’ faces; gymnastics doesn’t seem as boring and painful as the public often imagines, and the gym looked quite lively.
“The summer’s here, so a lot of parents send their kids here to learn some basics. For now, it seems like there are a lot of people,” Li Qunfang told the reporter. Of course, not every parents want their child to become a professional athletes, many are only here temporarily for fitness.
“Kids like Bai are few and far between,” coach Li said, flipping through an old photo album of the competitions Yawen participated in before.
The album contained bits and pieces of Bai’s growth. Pointing to one of the photos, coach Li continued, “this is the 2004 Liuzhou District Selection Competition. Look, she was so tiny.” In the photo, Bai stood at the left-most side of the lineup, and was shorter than all other competitors by a few inches, barely reaching Li Qunfang’s waist. That year, Bai had just turned six.
Yawen’s parents are both coaches, and that influenced her interests from a very young age. In 2003, the four-year-old arrived at the Nanning City Sports School’s Gym, and started training in gymnastics. “The first time I met her, probably because I’m a stranger, she was a little shy. After we familiarized with each other, her lively side came out,” coach Li recalled.
In the beginning Li Qunfang couldn’t tell if Bai was suited for the sport, but after basic training, she was quick to find that Yawen is very dexterous and has a quick reaction time. Most importantly, Yawen likes the sport and actively participates in training—unlike some, who tends to hide behind the lineup to avoid hardship.
“Bai is extremely courageous, and pretty competitive compared to her peers. She always wants to be number one; whenever I’m trying to teach a skill that’s a little more difficult, she sometimes cuts in line so she could get more time on the equipment than the other girls.”
Bai welcomed one of the crossroads in her life when the sportswear company Li Ning (named after their CEO, one of the Chinese MAG champions) sponsored a competition in Liuzhou. The goal of the competition was to select prospects for the Guangxi gymnastics team.
It was the first time Bai entered a competition of this size, and it was the first time she won an event. “It was her first competition, everyone was extremely proud of her,” Coach Li reminisced. After the competition, Yawen stepped onto the path of a professional athlete.
With her achievements, Bai quickly attracted attention, and all the professional teams were scouting her. “Back then, Guilin Gymnastics Academy and the Guangxi Provincial Team both wanted her, and both sent her letters asking her to attend their training camps,” coach Li revealed.
Yawen’s parents both worked in Nanning, and it would be easier for them to checkup on and take care of their daughter in Nanning—that became a determining factor in their decision for her to stay.
“Because of that decision, the teams that were expecting her were hounding me about why she wasn’t coming, so you can imagine how outstanding she was,” coach Li said.
When she entered a professional team, Bai was only six, which caused some controversy among the professional teams. Apparently, according to the regulations of the time, only those around eight-years-old could enter professional teams, and many coaches complained about Bai’s admission. Luckily, the controversy did not affect her training.
The Pretty Girl Who Visits Her Hometown Often
“After the Liuzhou competition, she was really excited, and fell even more in love with the sport. She participated even more actively in training, and was eager to take initiative,” coach Li says.
Because of her rapid improvements on the team, Bai only stayed with Li Qunfang for a little less than two years before she moved on in China’s centralized training system. However, Bai misses her mentor often.
“Before nationals, she came back to the team to visit me. She’s grown into such a pretty girl, and I’m extremely happy for her.”
The Athlete Who Has a Long Road Ahead
“Most kids now are the only child, and the parents tends to avoid hardship for them. Yawen’s parents are both coaches, and they both understand the importance of perseverance,” Li Qunfang says. After advancing to the professional team, Yawen’s training increased exponentially. After a while, some tried to convince her to train diving instead, but Bai insisted on gymnastics with the support of her parents. Now, her decision is paying off with the advancement to the national team and her first national silver medal.
Of course, Bai once thought about quitting—the thought enters every athlete’s mind at one point. “Out of the girls I trained, Yawen wasn’t the only one who moved on to the professional team. One night, the girls suddenly came to me with their parents, and told me that it was too hard to continue, and they wanted to go home—a lot of the parents already helped their kids pack and moved the luggage back home. Yawen’s parents wasn’t among them.” And so, Yawen ended up the only one who continued training.
“She’s not the only one to entered the professional team, it was a difficult road and she persevered—now she’s on the national team. She couldn’t have done it without her own work ethic and her parent’s support,” coach Li concluded, “as a coach on the basic levels, my responsibility is to give them a good foundation upon which to build their skills, and also to foster their interest in the sport, which in turn, will help them overcome the difficult times. As for Yawen, I can’t say what kind of achievements she will have in the future, I just hope that the little girl I watched grow up would have a wonderful future.”