No matter how hard you try, I bet you can’t name a gymnast from Taiwan.
The gymnasts who represent the country, designated as Chinese Taipei when it falls under the umbrella of international sports governing bodies, often aren’t at a high enough level to be competitive or even all that noticeable, with both gymnasts who appeared at worlds in 2015 falling far short of the standard for making it to the Olympic qualifier.
One of the gymnasts who competed that year was Mai Liu Hsiang-Han. Now 25, Mai Liu doesn’t have a ton of experience at the international level and she’s experienced so many setbacks in recent years that would make the toughest athletes in the world throw out their grips. But now, she’s ready to step into the spotlight as the top gymnast from her country going into the 2017 Summer Universiade, hosted in her city of Taipei beginning August 19.
Mai Liu used to struggle a lot in this sport. She attempted to qualify for the Olympics at worlds in 2011 in addition to trying in 2015, but didn’t quite have the skills to stand out, finishing closer to the bottom of the rankings than where she needed to end up. She did make the all-around final thanks to the two-per-country rule opening up a spot at Universiade in 2013, but finished in last place, with mistakes on pretty much every event.
The gymnast has made a ton of progress in the past few years, especially on bars. Mai Liu was looking forward to continuing that momentum after finishing up her competition in Glasgow, which wasn’t perfect but was far better — full points better — than her world debut four years earlier. She went back to training full of passion and commitment to get even stronger at her sport, but then last fall, something truly bizarre and tragic happened to keep her out of the gym for months.
While trying out a new skill on bars during warm-ups for a competition last fall, Mai Liu fell. A piece of the apparatus happened to be hanging accidentally off of the equipment, hitting her in the abdomen before she fell to the mat. At first, the pain was so great she could not stand up, but she tried to breathe and was able to slowly begin moving again, shaking a bit, but she figured it was more out of shock than anything and she insisted on finishing her competition.
Mai Liu flew home to Taipei after the meet and went straight to the hospital. She felt nauseous from the pain and was prescribed medication for what she thought was a back injury, leaving only to return to the emergency room in the middle of the night with a high fever and severe pain in her abdomen and back.
Alone in the hospital, Mai Liu received medication through an IV to help stop the pain while doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with her. Suddenly, one doctor ran into the room and told her, “Your pancreas ruptured. Get your parents to come in as soon as possible.”
It was at that moment that Mai Liu burst into tears. She blamed herself for competing with the injury and letting things get as bad as they did, and she dreaded calling her parents in the middle of the night. Far away in Pingtung City, all the way on the other side of the island of Taiwan, she felt bad making her parents worry as she explained an injury and operation they didn’t really understand, and felt worse for making them rush over to see her.
Her life-threatening illness kept Mai Liu in the hospital for 17 days before being discharged, and it took her almost six months to return to the gym. She has only been able to gradually resume training, and hasn’t yet reached the level she was at this time last year, but has been adjusting her workouts as she continues improving and despite everything, just won four gold medals and one silver at an international friendly meet last week in the lead up to the Universiade.
The Summer Universiade will be “the most important competition” of Mai Liu’s life, according to the gymnast. When Taipei won the bid to host the Games three years ago, the gymnastics federation made it a priority to train its gymnasts for the best possible performance to happen this year.
Mai Liu was on the right track until her injury, helping Chinese Taipei to sixth place at Asian Championships in 2015, but even without her, the program was beginning to see improvements from many young up-and-coming gymnasts, with the team reaching a historic fifth place at Asian Championships earlier this year.
Training hasn’t been easy for Mai Liu, especially with all of the setbacks. In addition to her ruptured pancreas, Mai Liu has dealt with various injuries common to gymnasts, and before the friendly meet last week, she woke up in the middle of the night before the all-around competition with a high fever, bringing back memories of her hospital visits last fall.
Afraid to take medicine due to anti-doping rules, Mai Liu tried to get through her illness by drinking water and wrapping up in a quilt. She felt better in the morning, decided she was well enough to compete, and walked away with the all-around gold medal after a steady and dominant performance.
During event finals the following day, Mai Liu went on to win the gold medals on bars and beam, but then had an asthma attack before floor. “Do you want to quit?” her coach asked her once she began breathing normally again, but Mai Liu chose to finish the competition, winning the silver medal on the event.
Mai Liu jokingly credits her illness for helping her have one of the strongest meets of her career. With her focus on her health and how she was feeling, she didn’t have time to worry about her results, as she normally does. Her lack of confidence has often been her downfall in competitions, and staying mentally strong and not getting too eager or excited has been what she is working on most for Universiade.
In high school, Mai Liu was among the best gymnasts in the country, but she struggled with the psychological aspect of the sport, especially when she began studying at the National Pingtung University of Education. She continued training there, but as a sophomore, Mai Liu fell into a slump so bad, she could barely do a somersault. Coaches suggested that she retire from gymnastics and focus on her studies, but Mai Liu refused to give up that easily.
“My mind is weak,” she admitted. “I’m not timid, but I get nervous when I compete and can’t always show what I’m capable of. I needed a coach who would be tougher on me, more demanding.”
She found a coach like that in Wang Shi Hang at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, though her transformation didn’t happen overnight. Mai Liu continued struggling in training for several years, and finally felt that maybe the people telling her to retire were correct. Frustrated, she said, “If there is no coach who can help me, I may as well go home and become a fruit seller.”
But Coach Wang refused to give up on her. He created a long-term training plan for Mai Liu, using assistance from the sports science program at the university to help her map out a trajectory that would lead to her reaching her highest potential. They realized early on that vault was going to be a weakness no matter what, but Coach Wang put together an all-around program that highlighted her strengths, and he also worked with his gymnast on her attitude in training and on finding a renewed passion for the sport, both of which helped them gradually get results.
“Her perseverance is amazing,” Coach Wang said of his star athlete. “She’s very demanding and self-disciplined. I’m the one who has to step on the brakes when it’s time to finish practice.”
Mai Liu spoke equally lovingly about her coach, thanking him for his support and encouragement, and crediting him with her friendly meet win last week, especially with his help in getting her to become a stronger competitor psychologically.
Coach Wang thinks that with a solid performance on balance beam, Mai Liu has a fighting chance at a Universiade medal. She earned a 13.1 in the final at the friendly meet, one of the best scores of her career, and while he realizes she may need a bit of luck — like counting on falls from other competitors — to get on the podium in Taipei, he hopes his gymnast will perform like she expects nothing less than gold.
“Believe you will be successful and you will be successful,” said Coach Wang. “Only second-rate athletes are afraid of failure.”
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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