Chinese Church Voices

Humbly Striving for Growth—Li Yan (2)

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.


Chinese Church Voices first featured Li Yan, the “Iron Lady on Ice” in 2014 in the wake of the Sochi Winter Olympics. She has continued to coach speed skating and this year was the head coach of the Chinese speed skating training team for the Beijing Winter Olympics. This article from Jingjie (Territory) shares more of Li Yan ’s personal experience and the humility that is key to her success as a world-class coach. Because of its length, the article is posted in two parts. You can read part one here; part two is below. Be sure to look at the original Chinese article for pictures of Li Yan and her skaters.

“Iron Lady on Ice” Li Yan
“Beyond Heart” at the Beijing Winter Olympics

To Lead a Team, You Must Let It Go

After the Turin Winter Olympics, Li Yan refused to renew her contract with the United States and returned to China to serve as the head coach of the Chinese short-track speed skating team. In the beginning, Wang Meng, an excellent skater, felt that Li Yan did not pay enough attention to the experienced team members, but rather put all her focus on cultivating the younger skaters. This frustrated Li Yan. She didn’t know how to help the team understand her coaching methods, and she wondered whether it was right to leave her husband and child to return to China.

During a vacation in the United States, a mentor who cared for her came to visit. Li Yan opened up and told the mentor her distress. The mentor taught her to “change yourself first, then forgive others.” She showed her how to let go of her stress and pride and learn to forgive others and herself. Then Li began to admit that she was not perfect and could not lead the team in her own strength.

After returning to China, Li Yan seemed to be a completely different person. She moved into the training dormitory, living full time with the team, and took the initiative to share her thoughts and learn their needs. The skaters all felt that this coach, who was known for strictness, was really different from other coaches. Li Yan said: “Love is shown through respect for others. I encourage skaters to encourage one another, and that when one contributes, the others benefit. If everyone blindly follows what the coach says, nothing new happens. We should be united and have a common goal. I also encourage them to love, forgive, and value one another. Although I can’t increase their pay, I try to give them the best.”

Since then, the icy track saw a warm, beloved, and invincible team. At the Vancouver Winter Olympics, under Li Yan’s guidance, experienced skater Wang Meng won the 500-meter short-track speed skating championship, making her the first Chinese gold medalist in the winter Olympics. After the race, Wang Meng knelt on the ice rink to thank Li Yan. Li Yan hugged her excitedly. The victory of changed hearts surpasses any outward achievements.

At that winter Olympics, the Chinese women’s short-track speed skating team won four gold medals, a record for the winter Olympics. Li Yan also won the “Best Coach” of the year award. Some media even quoted the words of the movie My Night at Maud’s, “It is no ordinary experiences, but the most amazing life journey. It is an adventure in sanctity,” praising Li Yan for realizing the second great step in her life. Wang Meng also called her “the woman who changed the history of short-track speed skating in China.”

Seeing the Light

One of Li Yan’s favorite quotes is, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble,” which encourages her to serenely face the challenges both inside and outside the arena. However, the short-track team had to face an unprecedented crisis due to various tensions and incidents. Wang Meng was seriously injured in an accident before the opening of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. This brought Li Yan great challenges that she found hard to accept.

Then she got a phone call from the mentor who had helped her. The mentor told her that all these challenges are for the best, to test whether the skaters on the team really loved and supported one another, and that these great challenges would mold her into a person with great patience.

Li Yan told her players what her mentor said: “This is a time of testing for us, testing whether or not we are a team that supports one another. Just like the human body, if your right hand is weak, your left hand needs to offer help. This is the moment that we need to do our best.” The team gradually regained their confidence. Li Yan courageously made adjustments and placed the skaters in positions that were not what they expected. Though it might not be what team members had hoped for, it allowed the team as a whole to do its best. Despite unexpected circumstances, the short-track speed skating team met with great success in the Sochi Winter Olympics, entering the finals in all eight events and winning two gold medals, three silvers, and one bronze.

They were, in fact, able to train themselves to put down burdens and worries on the ice track, which is full of crashes and falls. Li Yan said in an interview that people may be happier when things are going well, but they may lack the grit and perseverance that comes from adversity. She also mentioned several times how “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” has been greatly helpful in facing the pressures of competitions. “It has helped me overcome my inner demons.”

Furthermore, after all these achievements, Li Yan told herself and the team that they need to be humble. The better they are, the humbler they need to be. “Because this honor is not mine. I can’t do this on my own strength. I continually see my flaws and imperfections, and this guides me to continue striving for growth.”

Li Yan is called the “godmother” of short-track speed skating. However, she admits that she is neither a good mother nor a good wife. When she first took charge of the Chinese team, her daughter Bella was just one and a half years old, and now she is a teenager. “Glory is temporary, but growth is lifelong. I don’t want to miss my daughter’s growth. If I were a coach for an amateur team, maybe I could meet all my daughter’s needs. But right now, I will try to support her when she needs help as soon as possible.” After the winter Olympics in Vancouver and Sochi, Li Yan finished her coaching in the Chinese National Short-Track Speed Skating team. She began to promote ice and snow events across the country as the chairman of the Chinese Skating Association, and later she became a member of the Chinese Olympic Committee.

The Beijing Winter Olympics started on February 4. Li Yan, this Iron Lady on Ice who would silently pray for “no fear in the heart,” was already standing on the ice track, forgetting the honor behind her, and preparing to lead the younger generation in straining toward what is ahead, working hard on the track, persevering in life, and changing their hearts.

Note: This article refers to the short film Struggle and Triumph, the book Heart of An Athlete, and other online information, with thanks.  

The first part of this two-part post can be read here.

Original article: “冰上铁娘子”李琰:北京冬奥“心超越,” 境界
Translated, edited, and reposted with permission.

CS Editor’s note: This article is an update on an article previously translated and posted on Chinese Church Voices.

Image credit: Matthew Fournier on Unsplash.
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