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August 14, 2021

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Redemption for returning race-walk champion

FOR a lot of female athletes, giving birth usually means the end of their athletic careers. Rio Olympics race walking champion Liu Hong, who retired in 2016, once thought so until she realized that she still wanted to compete. After her daughter was born, Liu returned as a competitive race walker.

Just like finding a balance between rules and speed as a race walker, Liu had to reschedule her life through high-intensity training and quality time with her daughter as both a mother and an athlete.

“After becoming a mother, I didn’t have a lot of time for training, I had to really care for the combination of my household and my training. And so my way of training was quite different. I didn’t have as much time as prior to becoming a mother,” Liu told reporters after she won a bronze medal last week at the Tokyo Olympics.

Giving birth has changed her body physiologically but makes her look at wins and losses from a different perspective.

“For the Chinese team I think maybe we feel a little bit regretful because in the past we’ve won gold and maybe had the strength to win gold. But competitions are competitions and they come out as they do, so yes, I have some regrets about getting the bronze instead of silver or gold, but to be able to participate in four Olympics is already a great honor,” the 34-year-old said.

With her 20-kilometer victories at the Spanish leg of the 2015 IAAF Race Walking Challenge in La Coruna, the 2015 World Championships in Beijing and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Liu completed a grand slam of major race-walking titles. After winning the Olympic title, however, Liu suddenly felt the motivation that had pushed her was taken away.

Liu was 29 years old that year with great physical strength but an exhausting heart. As an athlete for more than 10 years, winning titles had been her only goal. Both the glory and happiness, and the pressure and anxiety came from winning titles. However, the fear of losing was much greater than the desire to win.

After completing her grand slam, Liu thought there was no need to hang on. In August 2016, Liu retired after the Rio Olympics.

Liu lived a regimented life for more than a decade: regular diet, regular sleep cycle and regular training schedule. When she went for events and tournaments, all of her meals, accommodation and transportation were already arranged.

Leaving this bubble, Liu found it hard to cope with the wider world and to arrange her own life. At home, she always lay on the sofa and scrolled through her phone without knowing what to do, where to go, when to leave or even what to eat.

In September 2017, Liu went to watch China’s National Games in Tianjin when seven months pregnant. When she heard the starting gun, Liu looked at the walkers and felt as if she was on the track. When the race was over, Liu was jealous when her former teammates went onto the podium.

“I came to realize that I still want to walk and win,” she said. “But I had no idea what my body would be like at that time.”

There aren’t so many employment choices for retired athletes. Many become teachers or coaches, or work in an office in the sports sector. Liu had thought about these choices but found it hard to give up on her expertise, experience and honors.

The track was calling.

In May 2018, when the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships was held in Taicang, Jiangsu Province, Liu took her daughter, Xi Xi, who was less than half a year old, to the venue.

Lupita Gonzalez of Mexico won the women’s 20km race. Two years prior in Rio, she had been overtaken by Liu in the final few meters, finishing second by two seconds.

“If I were there,” Liu kept thinking, “I would have claimed the championship.”

An old friend from the athletics association joked: “We can’t do it without you. Come back.”

Liu smiled and asked herself if she really wanted to come back. And the answer was yes.

During that time, Liu heard a lot of voices and doubts. Some people questioned why she would return after giving birth instead of living an easy life, suggesting that Liu might take advantage of her previous honors and make a fortune in the sports industry. Liu’s mother-in-law also tried to persuade her.

Liu, who paid little attention to the doubters, was committed on her comeback. The only question for Liu and her husband, Liu Xue, was how to combine the joys of competition with raising their daughter.

Giving birth has an irreversible effect on a woman’s body. For athletes who use their bodies as weapons, the effect would only be more significant.

Liu is no different. When she returned to the training ground after nearly two years, a good thing was that her body had become more flexible. With more than a decade of training, her movements and habits had become patterned behavior. But with the chances pregnancy brought, Liu was then able to build a new model. Her ligaments were flabby, her muscles were sagging, her pelvis was slightly tilted forward. It was difficult for her to finish moves that used to be easy.

Liu was anxious to recover quickly. But once the training load was increased, she found that her muscles, lower back, rear, knees and almost everywhere hurt.

In addition to rebuilding their bodies as athletes, female athletes have to rebuild their lives with children.

Liu was lucky that she could arrange a training site by herself, either in Beijing or Kunming. Whenever she went on a trip, Liu had to bring her daughter’s pillow and a lot of daily necessities.

On one occasion when Liu went on tour for a competition, her daughter couldn’t adapt to the new environment and cried all night. Liu couldn’t sleep well either, and could only catch up on some sleep during the days before the competition. But that time, Liu was only able to race with zero pre-game training, so her body was not completely warmed up and her movements were not relaxed.

Inevitably, Liu would compare her current state to her pre-birth performance and become frustrated and annoyed. For a while, Liu and her husband argued a lot. They are husband and wife, but also athlete and coach. They would argue about the training place, training plans and the cost of buying equipment.

At home, the father takes more responsibility of taking care of their child. Liu rarely picks up her daughter from school or puts her to bed. Her professional excellence and success has helped her withstand some of the social restrictions on women. Her husband’s full commitment to the role of father also helped her avoid many of the so-called troubles of juggling her career and family.

Coming back is like climbing a mountain. Liu reached the top in 2016 but giving birth has put her back at the bottom. Although she knew her way up, Liu still had to climb on her own, step by step. It was a tough process of pushing her beyond her limits and achieving better performance.

In May 2019, Liu finished her individual training and returned to the national team ahead of the World Championships in September that year. Unlike the previous model with a big team of more than 10 people, Liu arranged her training schedule with only her husband and doctor accompanying her.

Liu started to organize her life in perfect order, walking outdoors in the mornings and doing core training in the gym in the afternoon. In the evening, Liu would spend some time with her daughter at home and return to the base dorm after her daughter fell asleep. At first, her daughter would beg her to stay longer. Occasionally, Liu would bring her daughter to the track so she could watch her mom train. Eventually, her daughter began to accept that her mom had her own time and her own schedule.

Before her daughter was born, race walking took up all of Liu’s energy and life. The results would directly affect all aspects of her life. But winning or losing has now become less important. Liu felt that her daughter opened up a new world for her, where she learns how to get along with the world, and how to get along with herself with care, endurance and wisdom of life.

The 2019 National Grand Prix, also the World Championships 50km trials, in Huangshan, Anhui Province, was Liu’s third race since her comeback. The women’s 50km race walk was added at the 2017 World Championships, after Liu had retired, and this would be her first 50km race.

At that time, Liu had resumed training for just over nine months, and her longest training run was only 36km. Many athletes in the 50km race had told Liu that 40km would be the deciding checkpoint.

In early spring, the temperature in Huangshan was only a few degrees above zero and it was drizzling. Liu walked with several other athletes in the leading group. Xi Xi waited by the track with a pacifier and cheered up for her mom when she saw Liu come over. She felt more relaxed and motivated because of her daughter.

As they got closer to 40km, some athletes started to throw up and rub their muscles while others slowed down and fell behind. Only Tibetan girl Li Maocuo and Liu still remained at the front. Shortly after, Li also slackened her pace.

In the last 10km, Liu was all by herself. She began to use all the strength of her body to move forward. She seemed to have completely shaken off the effects of giving birth and regained the initiative to control every muscle. With the first few tens of kilometers of groundwork, her hip joint seemed to open completely, like a flexible and stable axis that kept pushing her legs forward. With all opponents behind, Liu didn’t have to worry about others’ speed, but focused on her own body, walking at her own pace, and moving forward.

Liu broke the world record in the 50km race walk, clocking 3:59:15 to become the first female athlete to break the four-hour barrier in the event.

Age and procreation are not her limitations, and family is not the end of her career. Liu felt that life is like race walking, knees straight, one step at a time, finding her balance between rules and speed.


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