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Sports ... ...
    Aerial ski champ flying high
Lei Lei
2005-03-25 06:00

She is a delicate and pretty girl.

She likes watching movies, listening to music and reading books, much like other girls her age.

But there is something singularly different about this young woman.

At the age of 19, she finished fifth at the Winter Olympic Games.

Three years on, she twice topped the world, winning the World Cup and the World Championships in a single season.

She is China's freestyle aerial skier, Li Nina, who gave China its first ever world championship gold medal and now shoulders the tough task of securing the country's first Olympic gold on snow.

"The success of this season has earned me a lot more confidence," said Li, who dominated the 2004/05 world cup tournament by winning six stops of the total 12 and settling four runner-up finishes. "The 2006 Winter Olympic Games is all I have been practicing for these ten years. I will try my best for the gold."

Today, the 22-year-old is the undisputed leader of China's aerial ski team. Her rise has not been trouble free and she has had to fight back from injury and other pressures.

A sports acrobat in her early years, Li turned freestyle aerial skier in 1995.

"Since I was very young at that time, I had no sense of the danger of aerials. I only wanted to try the new and interesting event," she recalled. "But as the training went on, I found it's an event full of risks...... and it is very cold during winter practice!"

Whatever fear she may have felt, it did not stop her from jumping. Equally the lack of attention paid at home to the sport has not put her off.

"When I was young, I did sometimes think about stopping training in the severe winters, but that was just momentary. I liked it too much," said Li.

Her training schedule is unremitting, six hours a day on average every year, with only about ten days without training a year.

"I don't consider the daily training as dull since I can see the improvement step by step in my every jumping attempt. I'm very happy about it," said Li. "Whenever I conquer a difficult jump, I come to know that I can do better and better."

The year-by-year training also taught her to accept the inevitable injuries.

"Injury is so common in aerial practice that small wounds, such as bruises or wrenches, are not even called injuries by us," said Li. "And injuries not serious enough to put us in hospital for weeks we also do not call severe," she quipped.

Her commitment to her chosen sport was rewarded at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics Games. With China's medal hopeful Xu Nannan, the silver medallist at the previous Games, not on form, the newcomer Li came a respectable fifth among many of the world's top skiers.

The following season, saw Xu out of action following a serious injury and Li was propelled to the lead position representing China in international competitions.

"I was not accustomed to such heavy responsibility and I felt so much pressure, so I was not in good form after Xu's injury in the 2003/04 season," recalled Li.

"But I have realized that it was a good thing for me to learn to deal with the pressure early. At least it's much better than experiencing it just before the Olympics. I have grown much more mature since then and I have become better accustomed to pressure and dealing with it."

This healthy mindset helped Li go from strength to strength during the 2004/05 season.

"Since I was just getting over an injury, which interrupted my training for a short while, I just aimed for victory in two stops of the world cup series at the beginning of the season," she said. "But as my performance remained stable one stop after another, the pressure subsided and I made it."

After bringing home the two titles, Li is now coming under a new round of pressure from a number of quarters.

"Of course the expectations of all have been raised higher than before, but I will try to keep a clear mind and to avoid the pressure as much as possible," Li said. "After all, one season's success can not secure future triumphs. I still have to work hard for future competitions."

Li's sound mental attitude is also highly praised by her coach.

"She is hard-working and has a very good focus," commented Dustin Wilson, the Canadian techniques coach of China's freestyle aerial ski team. "This year she was capable of managing both her technical ability and competing ability, which means she was very well prepared for each competition.

"She has the ability to win the Olympics. She has a great chance," said Wilson.

Li regards her own mental attitude as the key determining factor in her dream to take the Olympic gold.

"If I can keep a cool mind in regard to future results and focus all my energies...... this is very important for me in preparing for the Olympics," she said. But whatever the outcome, "So long as I have done my best, I won't be regretful of any result."

Li returned to her new round of training yesterday. Increasing the degree of difficulty in her technique is what she needs to do in the run-up to the next Olympics as several foreign opponents all have higher degrees than her.

But Li is confident.

"I'm working on increasing my difficulty ratings to meet the needs of competing at Olympic level," she said. "I'm not put off by the higher degrees of others. I'm confident I can beat them."

(China Daily 03/25/2005 page15)


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