We continue the 2021 series today with a look at Ting Hua-Tien, a 17-year-old who has spent the last two years putting Taiwan on the map for women’s gymnastics.
Ting began training as a gymnast at a summer camp when she was four years old, initially taking up the sport “just for fun” because she loved to somersault around the gym and jump on the springboard, things she couldn’t do on a regular playground.
Known for her sense of adventure, Ting was a natural at the sport early on. She went from throwing herself wildly through the air to mastering the ability to control her body and develop a sense of air awareness, which helped her go from a courageous daredevil to a skilled gymnast.
As she progressed through the early years of her career with success in the lower levels, her long-time coach had to leave his job, opening up the position for Tsai Heng-Cheng. “It was a beautiful mistake,” Tsai said, laughing, because he usually coached men, but he said he didn’t mind taking over as a girls’ coach. He had daughters involved in gymnastics, and he wanted to make sure they and Ting, as well as her teammates, had the best gymnastics education possible.
Tsai’s coaching paid off. When she was just 15 years old, Ting became Taiwan’s national all-around champion, defeating gymnasts older and much more experienced than she was despite coming in at a much lower level of difficulty. She often worried about not being competitive against the best gymnasts in the country due to being a bit behind skills-wise, but Tsai would remind her that as long as she hit her routines well, her results would be good, and he was right.
That year, Ting was also named to Taiwan’s team for the Asian Junior Championships in Thailand, where she finished 12th in the all-around – Taiwan’s top ranking five points ahead of the rest of her teammates – and also qualified into the beam final, where she finished seventh after a fall.
Ting made her senior international debut at Gymnasiade in 2018, and a few months later, she competed at her first world championships in Doha, where she ranked 66th overall, but jaws dropped when she wound up 10th on beam to earn the second reserve spot for the final (her score of 13.466 matched reigning silver medalist Morgan Hurd’s score, but Ting won the tie-break her execution one-tenth higher).
It was a brilliant outing for Ting, who had just turned 16 and was completely unknown on the international stage, and Taiwan’s federation wasted no time sending her out to get more experience the following year.
She made the bars and floor finals at the Melbourne World Cup early in 2019, where she also became the first Taiwanese woman to get a skill named after her in the Code of Points – a split ring leap with a half turn on floor, valued at a D. According to Ting, the skill first happened as an accident in the gym, yet another “beautiful mistake” to define her career.
Ting also competed at the Baku and Doha world Cups, making the beam final in Doha, and at Asian Championships in June, she finished seventh all-around with a score of 50.200 – the highest of her international career by more than a point – before yet again making history for her country when she became the first gymnast in Taiwan’s history to win an Asian Championships gold medal on beam.
At world championships in Stuttgart that year, Ting did not expect to qualify to the Olympic Games, and her coach had said that Paris was probably a more realistic goal for her to focus on. Nevertheless, she still wanted to give Tokyo a shot, and her preparation grew more and more intense as the competition drew nearer.
Going into worlds, Ting upgraded a lot so that she’d have a better chance at earning an Olympic berth, but the added difficulty and nerves seemed to get to her. Competing in the unfortunate first subdivision, Ting had a rough landing on her opening pass on floor and then fell on her layout series on beam, but she hit vault and had the best bars routine of her career, sticking the double layout at the end.
Ting ended up finishing two points ahead of the next-best gymnast from Taiwan, but she still had to play the waiting game before finding out if her dreams would come true four years ahead of schedule. Ultimately, she ranked 88th with the errors, but the gym gods were on her side, and she was able to snag the second-to-last available all-around spot, becoming the first woman to get the opportunity to represent Taiwan at the Olympic Games in 52 years.
Instead of the pressure on Ting decreasing after she earned an Olympic berth, she says the expectations have only gotten greater since then, causing her to take some time away from the gym for a little while so she could refocus her energy on other hobbies she enjoys.
Ting, who designed the New Taipei City Gymnastics t-shirts for her gym in her spare time (above), loves writing and drawing, and hopes to publish a graphic novel someday. She also loves anime and playing the ukulele, and she says spending time outside of the gym is the only way she’s able to release the stress that comes with being an Olympian.
After some time away to process the fame and attention that has come from her achievements, Ting went back to the gym refreshed and ready to work even harder. Her goal is to reach a 6.2 start value on beam, and her coach says she’s about 80% there, adding that if she can perform her full difficulty in Tokyo, she will have an opportunity to challenge for the apparatus final, and possibly even for a medal, which would be yet another first for Taiwan.
Article by Lauren Hopkins