Chinese Nordic combined athlete Zhao on course for greater breakthrough

January 31, 2024
Updated 2024/01/31 at 11:42 AM
6 Min Read
Zhao Jiawen of Heilongjiang competes in ski jumping of the Nordic combined individual Gundersen large hill/10km at China's 14th National Winter Games in Chongli, China on January 27, 2024. (Photo provided by Wu Diansen)

by sportswriters Dong Yixing, Yang Fan

BEIJING, Jan. 31 (Xinhua) — An improvement from 81 to 102.5 meters in the men’s Gundersen normal hill was the answer given by Zhao Jiawen as he competed again at the National Ski Jumping Center two years after the Beijing Winter Olympics.

At the venue of China’s 14th National Winter Games in Chongli, Hebei Province, Zhao triumphed with two individual and one team gold in Nordic combined. “I’ve made great progress in ski jumping since the Beijing Winter Olympics,” Zhao, China’s first Nordic combined athlete at the Winter Olympics, stated. “With the previous Olympic experience, I’m familiar with the weather and hills here. Returning to the same venue felt amazing, and I realized that I’ve made significant improvements.”

Despite adapting well, the challenge of gliding down from a height of approximately 100 meters and staying in the air for 5 to 7 seconds is formidable for any beginner.

Born in 2001 in Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang Province, Zhao was a top student until third grade, when his P.E. teacher, Wang Zhiru, identified his potential as an athlete. “I had no idea what the right choice would be at that time,” Zhao’s mother Yuan Hongxia recalled. “I simply believed it would be better for him to continue his studies, considering how difficult it is to become an athlete.”

Zhao’s athletic talent shone through in a long-distance running competition, attracting the attention of Yu Qingbao, coach of the Mudanjiang cross-country skiing team. “We couldn’t afford the expenses of a professional athlete,” Yuan explained. “But coach Yu assured us that if Zhao could make it into the top 16 in the upcoming provincial youth competition, all expenses would be covered by the team.”

After only 20 days of practice, Zhao impressed everyone with a seventh-place finish and was recruited by the provincial cross-country skiing team within a year. He later transitioned to Nordic combined.

At the end of 2016, China began forming its Nordic combined national team for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Nordic combined, encompassing ski jumping and cross-country skiing, demands courage, skill, physical fitness, endurance, and other essential elements.

The challenge of recruiting skilled athletes was evident as the team’s size reduced from 20 to just five, including Zhao. Learning about the 100-meter-high jumps, Yuan was extremely worried and once again urged her son to reconsider his athletic career. “I had no idea what the right choice would be at that time,” she said. However, Zhao, initially insistent, hesitated when faced with his first-ever jump during a training camp in Hokkaido, Japan.

“Mom, I’ve thought about it and I should go back to school as you suggested,” Zhao expressed over the phone. Yuan, however, encouraged him to persist: “No, son. Once you’ve made a choice, you can’t give up halfway. If you’ve chosen what you love, then love it unconditionally.”

Ge Da, leader of the Chinese Nordic combined team, noted Zhao’s high discipline. He would practice extra and study videos in his spare time. Overcoming fear and honing his skills, Zhao finished seventh with his teammates at the FIS Nordic combined Continental Cup in Ruka, Finland, in January 2019. He later won first place in the individual event at China’s National Youth Games in February.

However, a knee injury during training temporarily halted Zhao’s momentum. “I had a mental breakdown and became very stiff at the take-off point,” he recalled. “It took me a long time to overcome my fear again, but I just had to compete against myself.”

In November 2021, Zhao finished 22nd in the men’s Gundersen normal hill/10km race at the FIS Nordic combined Continental Cup in Nizhny Tagil, Russia, earning China its first Olympic spot in the discipline. “Skiing brings me pure happiness and a lot of fun,” he expressed. “Of course, setbacks and failures are part of the journey towards standing on the Olympic stage.”

At the opening ceremony of Beijing 2022, Zhao had the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron alongside female cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang. “I’m so honored and excited to become one of the torchbearers,” Zhao said, emphasizing that it gave him lasting motivation.

Two days later, Zhao made his Olympic debut in ski jumping with Dong Bing, Song Qiwu, and Peng Qingyue but was eliminated in the first round, placing 10th. On February 9, he became the first Chinese Nordic combined Olympian, competing in the men’s individual Gundersen normal hill/10km event. The 21-year-old ranked 42nd with a jump of 81 meters and a score of 59.0 points and finished the 10km cross-country race in 33 minutes and 29 seconds, placing 43rd overall.

“If we can compete at the next Winter Olympics, we will definitely achieve a greater breakthrough,” Zhao optimistically stated.

Returning to the National Ski Jumping Center, where his dreams began, Zhao excelled in ski jumping and cross-country skiing, winning gold in the men’s individual Gundersen normal hill/10km and Gundersen large hill/10km events, as well as in the team Gundersen large hill/4x5km events with Heilongjiang Province at the 14th National Winter Games.


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