Liu Jiayu - AP Photo/Armando Trovatijpg
If you were following snowboarding in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics as closely as the average sports fan in Chicago, you may have witnessed two surprising sights in the Women's Halfpipe. First, you might have spotted a petite snowboarder warming up with series of graceful kicks, blocks, and punches in the snow. Second, you may have seen that same athlete, China's Liu Jiayu, take fourth place, narrowly missing a spot on the podium.
Chinese snowboarders made their first major international appearance in Torino, during the 2006 Winter Olympics. A little more than a year later, a new Chinese boarder, Liu Jiayu, claimed two World Cup titles. During the 2008-2009 season, she made her mark, winning the World Cup in New Zealand, followed by China's first snowboarding gold medal at the World Championships in South Korea.
Now 19 years of age, Liu began training in snowboarding in 2003. When she reported to her first snowboard training camp in 2005, Liu's experience with aerials was limited to jumping on a trampoline with a snowboard strapped to her feet. Until she was recruited as a snowboarder, Liu was a practitioner of Wushu, a very popular Chinese martial art whose adherents include action star Jet Li.
My grandma took me to learn martial arts at sports schools since I was little. Knives, swords, spears, halberds, I've worked with all of those weapons.'
At her first snowboard camp in Whistler, British Columbia, Liu and her fellow Chinese athletes would blow off steam by practicing sword routines at the local park instead of skateboarding or swimming like the other athletes.
Liu was recruited as part of a program designed to fast-track their athletes in sports that are new to China. Athletes are recruited from sports that offer complementary skills, such as gymnastics, acrobatics, and martial arts. This program is widely credited for China's success in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where Chinese athletes claimed a staggering 51 gold medals.
Sun Zhifeng - AP Photo/Odd Andersen
Liu is not the only martial artist on the snowboard team. Sun Zhifeng, a two-time Olympian who finished 7th in Vancouver, is also a Wushu practitioner.
As martial artists and Olympians, Liu and Sun are in good company. Legendary Canadian figure skater Elvis Stojko, who won silver medals in two consecutive Winter Olympics and a three World Championships, has a black belt in Karate, and primarily trains in and teaches Hung Gar Kung Fu.
As shown by her warmup routine, Wushu is still very much a part of Liu's training regimen. Liu who is known for catching big air in her jumps, cites some of the similarities:
The flip in Wushu and the flexibility needed in Wushu are the same in snowboarding.
Liu has had her shares of bumps and bruises. In a sport known for its danger and the apparent fearlessness of its competitors, Liu matter-of-factly comments on her injuries with the typical stoicism of a martial artist:
It really hurts. Sometimes, I have bruise on my hip. But, it is a process. You have to learn from the falls. Every snowboarder must experience that.
Liu Jiayu, whose star is still rising by all accounts, paraphrases a martial arts maxim in her pursuit of China's surprising domination of the half pipe:
My only rival is myself.