From where I sit - Mens sana in corpore sano

October 18, 2012

I first met Zhao Jing when interviewing her two years ago. I was part of a panel evaluating her application to enter graduate study at Fudan University without sitting the entrance examination. She was polite, gentle, petite and not obviously athletic. Even after she told us that she was a national-level 800m runner, the only physical feature that seemed to match this fact was the total lack of excess fat on her body.

What surprised us more was that to prepare for the interview she had decided to quit the Asian Games in Guangzhou (scheduled for two months later), where she would have been in the frame to win a medal and even qualify for the London 2012 Olympics. "The time I had to prepare clashed with the national team's training period for the Asian Games," she said. "It was not an easy decision, but being a graduate student is more important for my future. And I still have the chance to qualify for London in the Universiade (the World University Games) 2011 in Shenzhen."

After she became my graduate student, I asked Ms Zhao whether her parents supported her decision. She said they fully understood and backed her.

"Each time I call my parents, they tell me that the athletics training really matters, but that under no circumstances should I forget that I am a college student first," she told me.

Her attitude contrasts strongly with those exhibited by many student athletes I have encountered in the Chinese academy. Most of them had been professional players for provincial or national teams before they were recruited by the universities. In exchange for the promise of sporting glory, the institutions admitted them despite their low scores in the national college entrance exam. Frankly, most of them rest on their laurels and hone neither their sporting skills nor their academic performance while at university.

But Ms Zhao is an exception. She was an amateur when she was recruited by Fudan. Her coach, Yang Jun, saw that she had great potential in the 800m. She did well in her studies, won several scholarships, and convinced the interview board to accept her for graduate study.

While all this was going on, she continued her rigorous athletics training - at least two hours a day for the past four years (more in the summer and winter holidays). Her efforts were soon rewarded: before the 2011 Universiade, she made a great leap forward in the 800m, cutting her personal best time from two minutes 20 seconds to two minutes four seconds.

Ms Zhao is grateful to Mr Yang's tutelage and for his patience when she decided to prioritise her academic future.

"He always encourages me to uncover my potential," she told me. "I remember we were walking outside the Bird's Nest Gym in Beijing when I told him my decision to quit the Asian Games. He calmly told me that to quit was to gain if I believed I would benefit in the long run."

In Shenzhen, Ms Zhao missed the qualifying time for the London Olympics by just 0.8 second, but it seemed to her more of a pity than a disaster.

"I did my best and I really enjoyed it," she said.

Of the long list of successful Chinese Olympians at the London Games, Ms Zhao's favourite is Xu Lijia, the gold medallist in the women's Laser Radial sailing event - a choice that says much about her refreshing attitude to sport and study.

"It is really cool that not only was she the champion, she was also one of the few Chinese players who spoke fluent English during interviews. That has helped the whole world to see a new type of Chinese athlete," she said.

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