Chinese Church Voices

Humbly Striving for Growth—Li Yan

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, it will be posted in two parts. Part one 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

Introduction: Li Yan, the “Iron Lady on Ice,” is the head coach who led the Chinese speed skating training team to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. For two Winter Olympics in a row, she has led the team to legendary status in China’s short-track speed skating. She said: “The better we are, the humbler we need to be. I can’t do any of this on my own. I continually see my own imperfections, so I need to strive to grow and mature . . . Honor is temporary, but growth is lifelong.”

Li Yan was the first Chinese athlete to win in the winter Olympics, breaking the short track speed skating records of 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. She was also an incredibly popular gold-medal coach in Europe, with some Westerners having made posters of her with the Chinese characters for “Dragon Soaring.” Li Yan once led the US team to great achievements and helped Apolo Ohno reach the height of his sports career. Later, she turned down the American team’s invitation and returned to China to coach, leading the Chinese team to legendary heights on the ice in short track speed skating in consecutive winter Olympics. She also has trained many outstanding young athletes.

Li Yan is called the “Iron Lady on Ice,” and is considered the person who could “inspire the team to get the gold.” However, she believes that “Honor is temporary, but growth is lifelong.” For years, she served as the chairman of the Chinese Skating Association and as a member of the Chinese Olympic Committee and she has devoted herself to promoting ice and snow sports in China. Last November she was appointed the head coach of the Chinese speed-skating training team to prepare for the Beijing Winter Olympics.

From Ice Royalty to Civil Servant in the Tax Bureau

Li Yan was born in Dalian in northern China in 1966. Her family moved to Baoquanling Farm in Heilongjing province because her father served as a soldier there. At that time, Heilongjing province was considered a great northern wilderness. It was extremely cold, especially in the winter when the temperatures were often lower than -30℃. The only outdoor game for active children was ice skating. Li Yan was a good-looking but petite child who would not catch one’s eye among the children playing snow sports and skating, but her innate grit and motivation soon made her stand out in skating.

Li Yan left home and went to Hejiang Sports School in Jiamusi for professional skating training at the age of 13. It is common for the careers of professional Chinese athletes to start very early, leaving home as young as 12 or 13 years of age—or even younger. Without parents nearby, the coach’s instructions and their training results consume almost all their lives. To concentrate on winter and summer trainings, they even set aside core academic subjects. It is hard for teenagers to balance core academic studies and sports training, but Li Yan was fortunate. When she thinks back to her early sports career, she said it was difficult at times, but more frequently she felt joy and honor.

In 1982, Li Yan earned second place in the National Teenagers Competition and then joined the Chinese National short-track speed skating team in 1987. In 1988, Li Yan participated in the Calgary Olympics and won a gold medal in the 1,000-meter women’s short-track speed skating and bronze medals in the 500-meter and 1,500-meter, even though short track speed skating was only an exhibition event at the time. At the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992, Li Yan won a silver medal in 500-meter short-track speed skating, which was one of China’s first medals at a winter Olympics. It also opened doors for Li Yan outside of sports. Two years later, she retired from skating and began studying finance at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics.

After graduation she worked at the local tax bureau and then got married. It seemed that a stable and comfortable life was the best choice after leaving a life of intense competition. But Li Yan later said in an interview, “I tried to live a different life, a comfortable life, but I felt that my heart was too calm. I lacked challenges when I was comfortable for too long.”

Coaching Experiences in Other Countries

Later, Li Yan returned unexpectedly to the speed track because of a business trip to Beijing. She said: “When I opened the doors to the ice-skating rink, a cold and familiar breeze hit my face, and my heart beat faster.” In 1999 she accepted, without hesitation, the invitation to coach the Slovakian speed skating team.

Stepping back onto the familiar ice, Li Yan still faced challenges, in everything from competition results to adjusting to local culture. In the quiet and simple European town where she coached, people from different backgrounds and walks of life went to church every Sunday. Li Yan was new there and felt curious about everything, so she also joined some Chinese gatherings at the invitation of friends there.

After she finished coaching in Europe, Li Yan accepted the invitation of the US Youth Team in 2003. Within three months she was the head coach of the US national speed skating team. During her four years coaching there, she trained Apolo Ohno, the American short track speed skating phenomenon, and broke the Korean monopoly on this ice sport. More importantly, the faith in her heart became stronger.  

“When I started to coach the US team, there was no trust between me and the players because of our different languages and coaching styles. Apolo liked to ask many questions. One day when he was in her car, she told him frankly, that since she was in the position as coach now, to trust her. “Let us journey together for a time, and I’m sure you will benefit greatly,” said Li Yan. Later, at the Turin Olympics in 2006, Apolo Ohno was the first to cross the finish line of the 500-meter circuit. He couldn’t believe it himself, and looked back at the Canadian and Korean athletes behind him to confirm that it was true. And then, Apolo raised his arms in excitement, shouted and rushed to his Chinese coach Li Yan, an image that became famous in sports history.

Apolo continued to observe and study in his subsequent training and achieved considerable success in the ensuing competitions. As for Li Yan, she learned how to interact with players with trust and sincerity. She has gained both honor from the public and respect from players. “I respect her very much,” said Apolo in one interview.

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

The rest of this two-part post will appear next week.

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

Image credit: Matthew Fournier on Unsplash.
ChinaSource Team

ChinaSource Team

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