Sui, Han show no fear in reaching pairs summitChinese skaters overcome major health setback to win first world title
When she teamed up with Cong Han to start pairs skating 10 years ago, Wenjing Sui was given the nickname "Martyr" by coaches and teammates. They called her that because she was indomitable, unafraid of trying risky moves and never saying a word after a hard fall.
Things haven't changed in the decade since. You can ask anyone on the Chinese national team, and they will all tell you that Sui is the most fearless skater of them all. One year ago, however, she got the biggest scare of her career.
On May 5 -- one month after she and Han captured their second consecutive silver medal at the world figure skating championships -- Sui underwent surgery to rebuild her lateral collateral ligament in her right ankle and reset the Achilles tendon in her left foot. The operation lasted more than four hours and required nine months of recovery.
"When they pushed my bed into the operation room, I tried to smile, but I just couldn't," Sui recalled. "When I saw the surgical light and heard those metal tools clinking, I felt fear that I had never experienced before. When they injected the anesthetics into me, I was so scared that I cried out."
After the surgery, the 21-year-old lay in bed for three months. She couldn't stand at all, never mind skate. To Sui, it felt like mental torture.
"During that time, fear hit me every day," she admitted. "I kept asking myself, 'Am I able to skate again?' and I kept crying."
Han encouraged her throughout this time.
"I had no doubt that she could be back," he said. "Even if she couldn't stand, I can hold her and help her stand."
Meanwhile, Han was trying something new, alone, while his partner was laid up.
"When we trained together, we were more or less spending more effort on the technical part," Han offered. "But I am very aware of my shortcomings in skating and performing, so I spent more time figuring things out and polishing myself."
The 24-year-old found that the experience of performing in ice shows by himself during the summer helped enhance his presentation skills. Also, new fitness coaches on the national team provided him with a customized training plan, which helped him improve his stamina and body strength.
But something was still missing.
"I felt so lonely and wanted her back so much," Han said.
In early September, four months after the surgery, when other skaters were starting the new season, Sui finally left the hospital, and immediately began to re-learn how to stand and walk all over again. A few weeks later, she started doing off-ice training. After she regained some of her strength, the pair initiated doing lifts and twists on the ground.
It wasn't until December that Sui finally stepped onto the ice.
"The first day she came back to the rink, she needed to take a rest after skating for only five minutes," Han recalled. "But then we continued, and we felt so happy that we just couldn't stop. We kept holding hands and kept skating, felt like we had all the happiness."
In the first week of the new year, the two attempted a run-through with music for the first time in seven months. Their free skate was set to the song "Bridge over Troubled Water," which was chosen by choreographer Lori Nichol because she believed the song told the story of the pair.
"I have faced so many difficulties this year, but my partner holds me and supports me like a bridge, helps me overcome all these obstacles," Sui shared. "Whenever I hear the music, I just recall so many memories and get emotional. This program truly tells our story."
They progressed quickly, landing their first throw triple in two weeks, and then moving on to solo jumps.
"We have a whole team supporting us. Without them, we never could have come back so strong," Han said.
That team was led by Hongbo Zhao, the 2010 Olympic champion with Xue Shen, who also had the experience of Achilles tendon surgery back in 2005.
"Besides physical condition, it is also very important to help [Sui] with mental condition," Zhao said. "When you're away from competitions for such a long time, it is mentally very challenging when you come back, but I am very experienced in dealing with such situations, and I shared with her how to cope with the difficulties.
"The recovery is like tightrope walking: You must be really careful to make sure you don't take a wrong step," Zhao continued. "Our team made a reasonable plan to guide her (through) what to do and when to do (it) during this delicate period, because we are experienced. We were hyper-careful, and I am glad that her recovery went very well."
So well that just a month after the team resumed regular training, they were already able to deliver two brilliant performances at the 2017 Four Continents Championships, setting new personal bests for free skate score and total score, and winning the title for the fourth time.
At the press conference, Sui said, "I know what I have been through -- that's why I can stand here."
After their dominant performance in Gangneung, Sui and Han arrived at the world championships in Helsinki as the favorites, a situation the two had not found themselves in before.
Han admitted he let all the talk get to his head.
"A few days before worlds, I was picturing myself winning the title, and (I thought I) might be overthinking a bit," he said.
Zhao noticed something was going on in his skater's mind and decided to impart some wisdom on his protégés.
"All top athletes are eager to win the world title, especially in the pre-Olympic season, when you want to set a good tone, so I really understood how they felt," Zhao said. "But all other top pairs feel the same, so I said to them before worlds, 'Those pairs have prepared themselves the whole season for this event, but this is only your third competition this season (after Four Continents and a domestic test skate), so don't ever think you're there to win. You have already won the battle against yourself, against all these difficulties. All you need to do is relax and do your own job.'"
His students used that approach in Helsinki, and it served them well. The three-time world junior champions captured their first senior world title by winning both the short program and free skate, and doing so with career-best marks across the board.
In a post-event interview, Han repeated his coach's words.
"We've done our job. We went out to the ice without thinking too much and tried our best," he said. "When the program finished, I knew we'd won. I'm not saying that we'd won the competition, but I knew that we'd won against ourselves."
"This is a dream come true," Sui said. "I have always had this dream, and I have been working hard, chasing it for years."
In fact, in an interview last year, Sui told me that the moment she decided to be an athlete, she believed she would be a world champion one day: "I am determined to do anything, to overcome any obstacle, to work as hard as I can, in order to be on top of the podium."
With that goal, that dream, now realized, it was like a weight was lifted off of their shoulders.
"I think after the surgery, my mindset going into competitions has changed a bit," Sui said. "Now, besides the result, I really enjoy every moment skating on the ice, skating in front of the audience who cheer and applaud for you. I now see our performance as a way of communication with the audience, and I felt great about being able to move them with our skating. I think this is what I enjoy the most about skating now."
"After what we've been through this year, now we are afraid of nothing, and we have really learned to enjoy the competitions and enjoy skating," Han said.
Shortly after she returned to training following her foot surgery, Sui wrote the following on Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter): "I am not afraid of crying in training, because I want to laugh in competition."
These young skaters, who are quickly becoming winter sports icons in China, certainly got the last laugh this season. For that reason, in my mind, they are the icenetwork People of the Year.