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Parents' perseverance inspires young paddler

After crossing Qiongzhou Strait on 12th birthday, brave boarder eyes new challenges

By Chen Meiling in Beijing and Shi Ruipeng in Nanning | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-30 09:12
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Meng Zixuan, along with her father Meng Hua and mother Meng Haiqing prepare to paddleboard across the Qiongzhou Straight on Feb 7. CHINA DAILY

Meng Zixuan, from Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, celebrated her 12th birthday in an extraordinary way — crossing the Qiongzhou Strait by paddleboarding, a feat that many people twice her age likely couldn't achieve.

The strait, which runs between the island province of Hainan and the mainland, is the third largest in China, with an average width of 29.5 kilometers. After conquering big waves and enduring physical exhaustion along with her parents, Zixuan successfully crossed it in 6 hours and 39 minutes, which made her feel "happy and proud".

"I fell into the water several times, and when seawater filled my mouth, I felt a bit panicked by the saltiness," she said. "I just climbed back up and continued paddling. I believed that as long as I had the confidence to face the challenge, I could overcome it."

On Feb 6, Zixuan, her father Meng Hua and mother Meng Haiqing packed all the equipment they needed and drove 600 kilometers to the Xuwen Port of Zhanjiang, Guangdong province.

At 8:30 am the next day, they each set off on inflatable paddleboards heading for Haikou, Hainan. They were escorted by workers from a paddleboarding club, who trailed them on a power skiff.

The family paddled their boards individually when the sea was calm. Whenever winds were heavy or waves were strong, the three of them would tether their boards together and paddle forward slowly. Whenever they felt tired or hungry, they would rest and eat.

Zixuan paddled faster than her parents. Whenever she noticed the distance between them had widened, she would wait for them and cheer them on.

During the first three hours, things progressed smoothly. But then the winds and waves grew stronger, and visibility gradually decreased. The family needed to be constantly vigilant to avoid colliding with buoys.

Soon, the mother began to feel fatigue, so Meng Hua tied his board to hers using rope. As they tried to navigate around a buoy, their rope got entangled with the buoy's mooring rope, and Meng Hua fell into the water.

Seeing this, Zixuan felt anxious and wanted to turn back to help. Luckily, her father managed to climb back onto the board.

Even when she fell and had to contend with waves as high as 2 meters to get back on her paddleboard, she insisted on finishing the task.

"When I felt exhausted paddleboarding, I was not scared. I was thinking about the things my father has always said to encourage me," she said. "Although it was dangerous, the thought of having my family by my side made me unafraid."

Meng Hua said he had wanted to challenge the Qiongzhou Strait as a child and finally decided to do it this year.

"When she heard her dad say he wanted to take on the challenge, she didn't really know what it was, but she said, 'I want to go too. You can't leave me behind,' " Meng Haiqing said.

Before embarking on the crossing, the family contacted the paddleboarding club in Hainan. The professionals there calculated various factors such as ocean currents, wind direction and weather conditions and suggested that the best time for the crossing would be from Feb 6 to 9.

Feb 7 happened to be Zixuan's birthday. The family decided to set off on that day to give her a birthday she would never forget.

The girl added it was meaningful for them to realize her father's dream together.

Steadfast spirit

Meng Hua is a retired athlete who was once a member of the Guangxi Water Polo Team and is now a swimming coach. Meng Haiqing is vice-chairwoman of Liuzhou City Swimming Association.

Meng Hua began teaching Zixuan how to swim when she was 4 years old. At the time, there were no heated swimming pools in Liuzhou.

"The water was very cold. Even us adults would get goosebumps and feel that bone-piercing chill when we went in it," he said.

Meng Haiqing recalled that although sometimes Zixuan cried from the coldness, her husband would still make her swim, as he believes success requires hard work and perseverance.

Six months later, the family swam together across the Liujiang River.

It was the Zixuan's first long-distance natural water crossing, but she was not afraid. Instead, she was very excited, Meng Haiqing recalled, adding that the experience inspired the girl to become more passionate about swimming and more confident in herself.

At age 6, Zixuan began taking swimming lessons every day after school. Sometimes, she had to do her homework in the car while her mother drove her there.

After just a few years of training, Zixuan has emerged as a rising swimming star. She came in first place in a 100-meter freestyle swimming assessment for primary and secondary school students in Liuzhou, and second place in both the 4X50-meter freestyle relay and 4X50-meter medley relay for girls in the 15th National Games of Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

Meng Haiqing said she wants Zixuan to increase her confidence, persistence and courage through sports so that she will be able to face all difficulties when she grows up.

"Besides, swimming is a useful life skill and is good for health," she said, adding that she and her husband don't expect her to be a future swimming star but hope the experience can positively contribute to her development.

At first, Zixuan bristled at the difficulties she faced during high-intensity training. Now, she is in love with swimming and embraces the challenges, eager to hop in the pool every day.

"She would be unhappy if there was no swimming training today," Meng Haiqing said.

She said Zixuan likes taking part in challenging activities, even those not necessarily related to swimming. She has won multiple awards, including painting and playing the zither. "As long as it is safe, I will let her try whatever she wants," Meng Haiqing said.

She gives lectures about how to avoid drowning at primary and middle schools, and at swimming pool complexes every year. Zixuan likes to join in her presentations.

"She likes to help others in this way," the mother said.

She said her daughter now has even bolder aspirations, including surfing, rock climbing and even eventually scaling Mount Qomolangma, also known as Mount Everest.

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