© Yuki Saito
For 24 years of my life, from the age of five until I retired at 29, I devoted myself to a single sport – gymnastics. What I learnt and became my belief from those times can be expressed in two Chinese words, Zhuānzhù (専注) and Jiānchí (堅持). Zhuānzhù means to devote one’s full attention on something, while Jiānchí means to see something through to the end.
When continuing to do one thing, I believe that you can motivate yourself by setting up various goals for each stage and moving forward while dedicating yourself to the achievement of that goal. I started gymnastics just because I was frail as a small child. My goal at that time was simple – to do gymnastics because it seemed like fun. When I became a member of the junior team, I started reaching for something that was a step higher. My goal was to be selected to represent my city or province. Once I became a gymnast representing Tianjin City, a new goal was born within me – to do my best for Tianjin City and mark better records than others. And, when I became part of the China national gymnastics team, my goal became even greater – to do my best for my country as a gymnast representing China. Under my strong belief to devote my full attention to gymnastics and see it through to the end, my goals at each stage did serve me as major motivating factors.
When I first became a gymnast representing Tianjin City, I felt immense pressure even when trying new moves and skills. However, I think that this was an extremely meaningful time during the process of my growth as a gymnast. I started overcoming pressure on my own and saw it as the best thing that gymnastics, and eventually, sport brought about for me in moving toward the next step.
I was highly motivated to win against myself, meaning to be better than I was in the previous day. This was not about winning against others. It was made possible by the fact that I kept to my beliefs: to devote my full attention and to see it through to the end. This was the reason I was able to live out my life as a gymnast.
© Chen Yibing
I was born very prematurely at seven months and was prone to illness. I often developed fevers or caught colds. Because of this, my parents thought that I should build up my physical strength a little, so they took me to gymnastics lessons. At first, my parents were only hoping to make me healthier. I do not think they had ever dreamt of their boy someday becoming an Olympic gold medallist.
Your ligaments become stronger and spatial awareness keener if you start gymnastics at a younger age. The training can be agonizing. You get calluses on your hands by training on the horizontal or parallel bars, and many children quit because the training was so arduous. But for me, I could withstand such training and kept doing my best. I eventually started getting good scores, and began thinking that I might be suited for gymnastics. I was selected for the Tianjin City junior team at age 12 and started representing the city in national tournaments. I lived at the school dorm, going to classes from there. I studied during the day, and when school was over, I dedicated myself to training. From age 16, I started participating in senior tournaments.
From when I was 13 years old until I was chosen for the national team at age 18, I went through a very difficult period. Although I endured hard training, I was not performing well and was a far cry from winning any tournaments. Even so, I was able to mark decent records in national tournaments, and I was fortunately selected to be a member of the national team. When I joined, however, I came up against the reality of many talented gymnasts who were younger than me yet very accomplished.
That was when my parents told me, “Don’t compare yourself with others. Improve yourself instead”. I took those words to mean that I should become my own champion, and I actually started training for two hours more than others every single day. Huang Yubin, who was head coach of the national team at the time, told me that he wanted me to continue gymnastics – that I should stick with it and not give up. Huang Yubin is a famous coach who has trained numerous gold medallists, and his words became a strong driving force for me. It motivated me when I was going through such difficult times.
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was my first Olympics. From 2009, I was appointed to be captain of the men’s artistic gymnastics national team. I had never imagined that I would become captain of the Chinese national team. While I felt very proud to have been chosen, I also felt enormous pressure of serving the role.
I did not become number one in the world until I was 22, which is relatively late for a gymnast. I was also around 25 when I was appointed captain. While struggling with age and illness, I tried, as captain, to serve as a role model for my young teammates. I did my best to encourage and invigorate the team so that they could enter the next competition in a good mental state. However, there was no one who could inspire me. I started training every day before anyone else did. I went through the same training menu as the young gymnasts and endeavoured to serve my captaincy.
This required an extremely strong mentality. The Olympics is a dream stage for any athlete and is an appeal to overcome the pressures and difficulties. So, I continued; I continued making the challenge believing in myself and making my best effort.
© Yuki Saito
Based on my commitment to devoting my fullest attention to gymnastics and seeing it through to the end, what became my next motivating factor was to contribute to the development of health and wellness of the people of China through education and my business. Now that I have retired from competition, I have been teaching sport theory and practice at Beijing Normal University every week. Students learn theory mainly through video clips and online while learning sport practice in classroom lectures. Under this curriculum, the students study anatomy and muscle movement online and then take a test. Meanwhile, they learn the actual movement and training offline, after which they sit for a test. The online classes are also available to any student, even if they are not enrolled in the university. More than a million students learn each year through my online classes.
As sport becomes popular on campus in recent years, there has been an even greater increase in the number of people who are becoming aware of the importance of sport training. However, students and the general public tend to neglect the basics, such as warm-ups and stretches. So, I have a strong desire to communicate through my lectures the importance of basic knowledge as well as of forming habits.
I also invested my own funds to start a company. The major businesses that my company is involved in include selling healthy and safe packaged foods, such as beef and chicken breasts, sport and exercise lessons for children, and fitness for the promotion of health among adults. I hope to contribute to the better health and improved physical fitness of citizens, through work to help maintain good health among the general public as well for for their fitness, such as diet and exercise.
© Yuki Saito
Continuing to try new things is something that I find very appealing. After I retired at age 29, I was asked to stay on with the national team as a coach. I can observe an athlete and tell whether he or she can go on to become a champion. I am confident that I would be able to coach a world-class athlete or Olympic gold medallist. However, after having started gymnastics at age five, staying on as a coach from age 30 until my retirement would mean that I would have spent my whole life being involved only in gymnastics. I wanted to go into other areas so that I could communicate my expertise to as many people as possible.
My current goal is to become another Li Ning, who is an extremely well-known Chinese gymnast. He won six medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – three gold medals, two silver medals and one bronze medal. He is a national hero. He became a successful entrepreneur after retiring from competition. Like him, I would like to achieve success as an entrepreneur. China has a huge population, and there is a very high demand right now for anything related to health and fitness. I would like to expand my fitness business while teaching students at the university. That is my next goal that I would like to work toward and achieve.
At the same time, I am currently serving as an ambassador for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. China is not very strong in regard to winter sport. However, I plan to engage in promotional activities to use 2022 Beijing as an opportunity for the people of China to better understand what winter sport is all about and increase the chance for them to enjoy it.
© Yuki Saito
In gymnastics, you have to keep increasing the difficulty level of the skills you can perform. You also have to make yourself able to carry out the skills more perfectly than other athletes. There were many times during my gymnastics career where I had had to perform under enormous pressure after watching a rival achieve a perfect performance in front of me. It is only yourself who can help you in such situations. By accepting the pressure and overcoming the issue on your own, you feel a sense of achievement and significance. On the other hand, if a rival makes a mistake, and then you win, you might feel some joy, but for me I cannot call it a complete victory.
Although I was frail as a child, with effort, I was able to reach the position of number one gymnast in the world. What I valued the most during my career was the words of my parents: “Be your own champion”. Instead of comparing yourself with somebody else, you try to become stronger and even just a bit better of yourself than yesterday. Especially after I became number one in the world, my biggest rival became myself. I aimed to have conquered myself by constantly reminding myself to become ‘my own champion’.
That belief in me has remained the same even after retiring. I have had the privilege of becoming a member of the China Anti-Doping Agency (CHINADA) Athlete Committee. I believe that it is important for me to provide accurate information to the young athletes from an athlete’s perspective so that they can compete in a clean sport environment. I would like to be my own champion as a university lecturer, entrepreneur, CHINADA Athlete Committee member and a messenger for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.
Of course, while I will not be able to do everything perfectly, I will continue to uphold my conviction to devote my full attention and see things through to the end. At the same time, I will continually work to achieve growth to make myself even a little bit better than yesterday.
Started gymnastics at age five, joining the Chinese National Team in 2006. World champion in Still Rings in four consecutive world championships from 2006.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Yibing was a gold medal team member of men’s Chinese team gymnastics. Also won China’s first gold medal in Still Rings since Li Ning won 24 years before. Served as captain of the China men’s gymnastics team at the 2012 London Olympics, helping China win a second consecutive gold medal in the Team Competition.
Today, he serves at Beijing Normal University as a lecturer and is an entrepreneur running a physical fitness-related business, as well as a member of the China Anti-Doping Agency (CHINADA) Athlete Committee.
You must find fun and joy in something if you’re going to do it with dedication, because the passion that enables it arises from the spirit of enjoyment.
What I learned through my competitive career is that we can do far more work than we ever believe we can. When I was working towards my first Olympic Games, I can remember times when I was absolutely exhausted, and I did not think I could do more.
More than anything, when I’m playing volleyball, I try to have no fear. To continue to play hard and not fear making mistakes, I always try to play with a smile on my face, staying positive at all times no matter what the situation.