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February 24, 2012

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Skating queen reigns over city rink

For legendary speed skating champion Yang Yang, running a new ice sports arena in Pudong New Area is the icing on the cake of 59 championship titles - and a chill way to promote ice sports in a warm city.

One of the world's all-time best short track speed skaters, she is known for being relentless, never quitting and hitting the ice again after a devastating setback in Olympic competition - she went on to a string of victories. At one national championship years ago, she fell, skidded and struck her head, but returned again and again to the starting line until she collapsed and had to be carried off the ice.

Given her never-say-die sporting spirit, it's likely that Yang Yang will also succeed in her latest venture, managing the new Sanlin Sports Center - the centerpiece of efforts to promote ice sports and love of skating in Shanghai and southern China.

The 4,000-seat stadium for children, ordinary skaters and professionals will open at 201 Yunlian Road in the Sanlin area in June. It will serve as the professional training arena for the city's ice sports.

Yang's other big project - also due next month - is a baby.

"I really feel this is my best time, since both my life and career are in the harvest phase," 35-year-old Yang told reporters recently during a promotion for the upcoming 2012 World Short Track Speed Skating Championship in Shanghai at the Oriental Sports Center from March 9 to 11. She's the ambassador for the event.

During her nearly 12 years of professional skating, Yang won 59 championships in various competitions, the most among all athletes in China, and she still holds the world record in the women's 1,000-meter short track. She holds 32 world titles and five overall world championships.

In 2002, she won China's first gold medal in a Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the United States. She became a national hero.

Since hanging up her skates in 2006, Yang has been busy promoting ice skating and ice sports. She cofounded a charity foundation to promote sports in poor areas. She's a member of China's National People's Congress and the International Olympic Committee. Last year she moved her home from Beijing to Shanghai.

Warming to ice sports

Since the 1980s China has planned to develop ice sports facilities in southern areas to make the country more competitive in the Winter Olympics. Shanghai has been putting the plan into practice.

The stadium will not be purely commercial (it's difficult to actually make money with such a venue), nor will it be dedicated only to training elite skaters, Yang said.

Instead, it will be a platform for both beginners and top athletes, whether speed skating, figure skating or ice hockey.

"The city is comfortable," Yang said. "I love the weather here, it's not too cold." But not-too-cold is a challenge since Shanghai residents almost never see snow, hardly anyone ice skates and there's little interest in ice sports.

While many expats like ice skating, there are less than 10 rinks around the city.

Yang believes the market is big and hopes to get children interested to grow the popularity of the sport.

"Not every ice event requires a high skill level, for example, ice hockey is more about teamwork," Yang said, adding that ice hockey helps children develop coordination, cooperation, communication skills and leadership.Yang, who is also a member of the International Olympic Committee, says she can bring more resources to the city to develop ice sports.

That's going to be expensive.

Electricity alone, primarily for refrigeration, can cost around 6 million yuan (US$952,800) a year. "An ice stadium is not a good project if you want to earn money," she said, "but it's my dream, and it will be tested by reality."

She wants more people to experience the joy skating and ice sports; promoting them is her long-term career.

"I grew up in a village and ice sports gave me the chance to achieve my dream. So in this stadium, in addition to training professionals, I will encourage more kids so more people can know the beauty of the sport," Yang said.

"My initial goal for the rink is not to lose too much money. First, let it survive."

Establishing a professional ice arena in Sanlin in Pudong New Area had been planned for five years.

It was in 2006, when Yang had just retired from skating, that she learned a baseball field would be reconstructed. No decision had been made on whether a soccer stadium, basketball stadium or swimming venue would replace it.

"Why not to build an ice-skating rink?" Yang suggested. Authorities liked the idea. The new arena was not announced to the public until the end of last year "when the timing was good" and interest was increasing, she said.

Last year the Cup of China World Figure Skating Grand Prix and the Short Track Speed Skating World Cup were held at the Oriental Sports Center. Next month the Short Track Speed Skating World Championships will come to town. Now the time is right, she said.

Early life

Yang was born into an ordinary family in Tangyuan County in northeastern China's Heilongjiang Province and fell in love with skating when she was only 9 years old. Her mother would not let her learn until she promised that skating would never interfere with her studies.

Yang was recruited by the famous skating coach Jin Meiyu when she was just 13.

"She had great technique and strong will but her physical condition was not as good as that of my other students," the coach once said. "But her character of 'never-give-up' is what made her a world champion."

In the National Championships in 1993, Yang fell down, slipped and skidded for 10 meters, striking her head on the board perimeter. When she struggled to stand up, the judge signaled a rematch. Yang again fell down when she started to skate. Then coach Jin asked Yang to quit. Yang refused and returned to the starting line. This time she fell unconscious and had to be carried off the ice. When she regained consciousness she was angry - "I can skate, why did they let me give up halfway through?"

Life hasn't been easy. Her father died in 1993 when she was 18, leaving her with her mother and younger sister. The next year her mother had major surgeries, which plunged the family into debt. In the most difficult times, they spend less than 2 yuan (3 US cents) a week.

The loss of her father, a meager livelihood and hard training - none of these discouraged her. Difficulty spurred Yang on to work harder and succeed.

She became famous in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where she won China's first gold medal in winter sports, in 500-meter, short track skating. Afterward, her mother Jiang Fan said in an interview, "It was no easy job for Yang Yang to win. I'm so proud of her."

Nothing can stop her, Jiang said. Once, despite a badly, two-thirds torn tendon, Yang would not stop training. She wrapped a bandage tightly around her ankle and took painkiller injections.

"Once I start skating, I cannot feel pain," Yang said.

From 1997 to 2002, Yang dominated the ice arena in the world championships with six overall titles in a row. She had created an era.

"It's hard to say which gold medal was most important to me. I had different feelings at different times," she recalled. "The struggles before the win are more memorable since the ups-and-downs actually make the gold medal story."

In the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Yang's performance slipped badly. She won only a silver medal in the 3,000-meter relay and came away empty-handed in the 500 meters and 1,000 meters, in which she had taken the world championship in the year before.

She was depressed since she had worked so hard to prepare. She even thought of retirement, but realized that few universities would accept an athlete without an Olympics title.

"I couldn't quit, otherwise, I would regret it the rest of my life," Yang recalled. She calmed down and started to plan her future. "I had to keep training and face cruel competitions but in the meantime, I realized that I had to study and prepare for my future."

She learned from her defeat and went on to win big.

After 1998, she took the world championship title of best overall for five consecutive years and won three or four titles in every world championship competition.

In the Winter Olympics in 2002, although Yang missed the title in the 1,500 meters, she came back with two gold metals in the 500 meters and 1,000 meters, becoming the first Chinese champion in Winter Olympics.

"After losing the 1,500 meters, I knew I could not escape this time. I cut my hair (cutting hair is a traditional Chinese way to show one's determination) and took off the lucky charm. I realized no one and no lucky charm can help you, you have to fight for it," she said. "People have to experience before they achieve."

Four years later, when Yang was 31 and had been retired for three years, she was called by the national team to compete in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

She did not hesitate and laced up her skates again.

"I felt I had to come back," Yang said. "If not, I would regret it."

But there was no miracle. She couldn't help the Chinese team win gold in Turin.

"You can say ice skating is my responsibility or my love," Yang said.

Now she sees the Pudong ice stadium as an extension that responsibility and love.

"I always dreamed of establishing a skating school and expanding the ice industry," Yang said. "Shanghai gave me the chance and I will cherish it and do it well."

"Ice skating is like my baby and always keeps me passionate."


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