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In the mood for Milan

Olympic hopefuls tune up for 2026 with impressive performances at National Winter Games

Updated: 2024-02-28 09:09
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From left: Sun Long, Han Mei and Wu Yu all grabbed golds in the speed skating rink at the National Winter Games in Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia autonomous region. XINHUA

Chinese athletes flexed their Olympic muscles at the 14th National Winter Games as preparations for Milan-Cortina 2026 ramped up a notch.

China's premier national-level winter sports event since Beijing 2022, the National Games, which closed on Tuesday, featured over 3,000 athletes, with familiar faces to promising young prospects all vying for medals in Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

The host nation secured an all-time best haul of nine gold, four silver and two bronze medals at Beijing 2022, with Chinese athletes maintaining that momentum since.

For Olympic champions such as Su Yiming and Gao Tingyu, the National Winter Games served as a crucial preparatory stage before forging ahead to the 2026 Winter Olympics.

Dreaming big

The National Games schedule featured all 176 events, across eight sports, that will be contested at Milan-Cortina 2026.

"The National Winter Games can be viewed as large-scale training ahead of the 2026 Winter Olympics, to further enhance the international competitiveness of China's winter sports," said Ding Tao, an official from the General Administration of Sport of China (GASC).

China is traditionally a strong medal contender in the likes of short-track speed skating, speed skating and figure skating, and plenty of young guns showed at the National Games that fans will still be able to pin their hopes on ice sports, which are hugely popular among the general public.

Inner Mongolia speed skater Han Mei, who did not secure a medal at Beijing 2022, excelled with three golds in front of her home crowd. "We should dream big, and my next goal is to finish on the podium at the 2026 Winter Olympics," Han said.

Chinese snowboarding sensation Su, who bagged two golds at the National Games, is also aiming high. "My goal remains unchanged, which is to win the Olympic gold," he said.

But the 20-year-old Beijing 2022 champion admitted that his path to the 2026 Winter Olympics would not be plain sailing.

"Now, not only my body but also my mentality, along with various factors off the snow, will make the preparations even more challenging," he said.

Several Olympic champions failed to impress at the National Games — which in some cases helped athletes refocus, providing a timely reality check.

"This is my first National Winter Games experience, and it feels like a small-scale Olympic Games," said Olympic champion short-track speed skater Liu Shaoang, who failed to earn a gold at the event.

"Fierce competition will help us make mutual progress, and the National Games is a great opportunity for us to brace ourselves for the 2026 Winter Olympics," he added.

Rising stars

Thanks to the performances of athletes like Su, Gu Ailing and Xu Mengtao, China's Olympic gold medals on snow surpassed those on ice for the first time at Beijing 2022.

Freeski superstar Gu did not attend the National Games, but has continued her winning form elsewhere, emerging victorious at an FIS halfpipe World Cup event in December.

"It feels great. In the second and third runs, I tried out some moves that I haven't successfully pulled off in training," Gu said after the competition.

Plenty of rising stars threw down the gauntlet at the National Games, with Sun Long of Jilin province notching four golds in the star-studded short-track speed skating events.

Wu Yu of Liaoning secured three golds in the men's long-distance speed skating races.

Acknowledging the gap between China's top speed skaters and the world's elite, Wu was nevertheless optimistic about shining at the 2026 Winter Olympics.

"My overall performance in the national team has improved, so I have higher expectations for myself," Wu said.

The National Games added youth categories to its schedule in order to provide a platform for young athletes to gain experience.

"Many young talents showcased their capabilities, which is of great significance for the talent pool in winter sports," said Zhang Xin, an official with the GASC.


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