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Sun sharpening up for more success

By SHI FUTIAN | China Daily | Updated: 2021-08-20 10:15
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Sun Yiwen won the third Olympic medal of her career by claiming women's individual epee gold at Tokyo 2020 on July 24. XINHUA

Newly crowned Olympic champ determined not to let injury derail glorious career

Hoisted high into the air by her coach after winning epee gold, Sun Yiwen later hobbled out of the Olympics in tears when injury cruelly halted her campaign. Tokyo 2020 truly was an emotional roller-coaster for the Chinese fencer.

In typically gutsy fashion, however, the 29-year-old is determined not to let that setback derail her bid for more medals at the 2024 Paris Games.

"Being able to win the individual gold was the result of years of hard work. I have grown and matured, step by step," said Sun during a livestream interview with China Daily on Weibo on Monday.

"For me, the key over the past five years has been to keep pushing myself. And I always remind myself to avoid being too anxious or, conversely, too complacent. Even though I'd previously won two Olympic medals (a silver and bronze at Rio 2016), I told myself they were just the marks of my past, and they don't represent what I can achieve in the future."

After winning China's first ever Olympic gold in women's individual epee at the Tokyo Games, Sun's second goal was to help her country claim a medal in the women's epee team event. However, a knee injury sustained in the semifinal forced her to withdraw from the competition, with China eventually finishing fourth.

Sitting on the ground and crying, Sun's heartbreak was captured in images that went viral on Chinese social media.

"I also saw the video clips of how I was injured during the team competition and then quit the match," recalled Sun.

"I felt at that time I had no strength in my leg, and I was unable to continue. My meniscus was injured, and it's still not fully recovered now.

"Under such circumstances, I thought that I might be able to keep competing after about half an hour, having received some medical treatment. But the fact was, I just couldn't continue. If I had continued, I would have lost points for our team. And, in that case, I would have blamed myself more.

"During my quarantine, I have been doing some recovery training. I feel it's still hard for me to do intensive training now. My injured knee cannot handle the pressure."

As a veteran of her sport, Sun is well equipped mentally to deal with failure, just as much as success. So, the tears in Tokyo won't diminish her determination and confidence for the future.

"Fencing is different from many sports. For instance, swimmers tend to know how fast they can race. But fencing is more like a game. In some cases, even if you have the strength, it's not certain that you can win the gold," said Sun.

"There are many variables and uncertainties during matches. Many teams across the globe have the strength to stand on the highest podium. The Chinese women's epee team has been very competitive on the international stage."

Sun has been dogged by injuries throughout her career. Her chances of being able to defend her Olympic title in Paris in three years' time will, therefore, be largely dependent on her ability to stay healthy.

"If my knees or legs are hurting too much in training, I'll ask permission from the coach to not complete the full session. So, instead I'll work on my arms. I simply shift the focus, as opposed to completely stopping,"Sun added.

"The knee injury is actually pretty serious for me as a fencer. And before the Olympics, I strained my right leg. It's also not fully recovered. It's hard for me to even put on my fencing uniform. Unfortunately, injuries have followed me throughout my career and life."

Tough taskmaster

A major reason behind Sun's success is her coach, Hugues Obry. In one of the highlight-reel moments of the Tokyo Games, the Frenchman carried Sun on his shoulder after she won gold.

"We have a really good relationship and we are like friends. My coach is really serious and responsible. As a foreign coach, he really wants the best for our athletes," Sun said of Obry.

"He's very serious during training, but he's also a very funny person, and is always telling jokes."

By his own admission, Obry is an extremely tough taskmaster, and Sun says his intensive training regimens are not for the fainthearted.

"In some extreme cases, we might lose 3 kilograms after one session, especially during the summer months. The fencing cloth alone is very heavy, plus we wear other layers underneath it. It can get very hot and dehydration is possible," said Sun.

"Fencers actually run a lot as part of our physical training. Many times I just thought, I don't want to run again and would think of quitting. I remember when I was a teenager, each morning I would finish 30 laps of the 400-meter track.

"Now, I find it hard to get out of bed really early. So when the coach calls to wake us up and start training, sometimes I have even finished the plan of how to pack my luggage and escape! But when I finally get up, well, I just need to keep going and face my life."

Ultimately, though, her genuine love of the sport gets her through those dark days.

"The fencing spirit is very important. For me, it means I shall not give up in the face of any difficulties and challenges. I consider these challenges as obstacles which will help me to grow on my journey to success,"Sun explained.

"If I feel everything is going too smoothly at any point in time, that means I have stopped making breakthroughs and have stopped growing."

Sun also credits fencing with changing her personality-from soft and meek in everyday life to a fierce competitor when she steps onto the piste.

"I needed to change my mindset. When I stand there to compete, I just can't let down my coach, my team or myself. I just constantly switch my personality from one side to the other, over and over again,"Sun added.

"We have been competing for so long. Victories and defeats are all very normal to us now. We should accept both. Being an athlete, I shouldn't just set my sights on the results. We need to keep adjusting to all situations."

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