Just four years ago, Zhang Xin was a trainee cheerleader who had never ridden a skateboard. Now, she’s preparing to skate for China at the Tokyo Olympics.
The 22-year-old, who will compete in the women’s park event, is one of two skateboarders representing Team China at the Games, which kick off Friday. Her teammate, 16-year-old Zeng Wenhui, will take part in the women’s street contest.
The pair are products of China’s extraordinary push to build an elite skateboarding team in time for Tokyo, which has seen Chinese coaches apply old-school, quasi-military training methods to the traditionally laid-back sport.
As soon as the International Olympic Committee approved the inclusion of skateboarding as a first-time event at the next Games in 2016, China’s Olympic juggernaut rumbled into action.
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Zeng Wenhui trains ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, July 22, 2021. Xue Yubin/Xinhua
Sports authorities began the process of assembling a national skateboarding squad from scratch, searching for promising young athletes and setting up six regional training camps to hone their skills.
The existing talent pool wasn’t large. Though skateboarding is growing in popularity among young Chinese — and several cities have built gargantuan skateparks to attract them — the sport is much less developed in China than in countries like the United States.
China’s General Administration of Sport, however, trusted its tried-and-tested “medal factory” system to overcome this disadvantage.
Rather than fill the camps exclusively with experienced skaters, the authorities also turned to China’s sports school system — a nationwide network of specialist institutions designed to identify and train world-class athletes from a young age.
The system has a single-minded focus on producing champions, and is known for the semi-militarized training regimes child athletes have to endure. But it has been undeniably effective at helping China become an Olympic powerhouse: Around 95% of the country’s gold medalists attended a sports school.
When the training camps opened in 2017, veteran Chinese skateboarders found themselves practicing alongside sports school students who had been reassigned from martial arts, gymnastics, and other disciplines. The vast majority had never skated before.
Zhang was among them. A native of central China’s Hunan province, she had been training to be a cheerleader at the Nanjing Sports Institute when she noticed a recruitment event for the skateboarding project.
Signing up with a friend on a whim, Zhang never imagined she’d be selected. But at the tryouts, she excelled at a series of physical tests designed to assess her balance, coordination, and strength. Her friend was eliminated; she got to stay.
The first months of training were brutal. The coaches threw Zhang and the other novices in the deep end: For 12 hours each day, they rode halfpipes, practiced new tricks, and — inevitably — bailed hard and often.
The former cheerleader initially struggled. She suffered repeated injuries, and she didn’t think she stood a chance of qualifying for the Olympics — she could barely skate.
“I was crying every day next to the park when I first started to learn to skate, because it was so terrifying,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone. “It was very challenging because we were creating something out of thin air.”
Zeng Wenhui competes at the WS/SLS World Championship in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sept. 20, 2019. Alexandre Schneider via People Visual
Zeng, who attended the skateboarding camp in the southern city of Zhaoqing, says the training was even more intense than what she’d experienced as a martial arts student.
“At the sports school, we took classes in the morning and trained in the afternoon,” says Zeng. “Because there wasn’t the goal of making the Olympics, the training wasn’t as strict, nor was the management.”
The hours of repetitive drills paid off. Zhang and Zeng made spectacular progress; Zhang even won a bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.
The pair would go on to make the cut for Tokyo 2020 — each taking one of only 20 qualification spots in their respective events. Both are seeded 15th for the Games.
Zhang Xin poses for photographs after receiving a bronze medal at the 18th Asian Games in Palembang, Indonesia, Aug. 29, 2018. Hotli Simanjuntak via IC
But for established skaters like Yuan Zhenzhen, training at the camps was a frustrating and dispiriting experience.
The 27-year-old started skateboarding in college, after becoming obsessed with how “cool” the sport looked in online videos. For years, she rode the streets alone — she was probably the only skater in Jinhua, the city in eastern Zhejiang province where she was studying, she says.
Her chance to try out for the Olympic squad came after she placed 10th in women’s street at China’s 2017 National Games. For a skateboarding fanatic, the offer of free accommodation and access to a skatepark sounded perfect. She leaped at the opportunity.
But when she arrived at the camp in Beijing, Yuan couldn’t adapt to the coaches’ dogmatic, repetitive approach to training. Though she understood their reasoning and was ready to sacrifice to make it to Tokyo, this wasn’t the fun, free-spirited sport she’d fallen in love with.
“You have to practice the tricks they tell you every day,” she tells Sixth Tone. “You’re not allowed to try anything else.”
Zhang Xin competes in the Olympic qualifying skateboard event, in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., May 21, 2021. Charlie Neibergall via IC
It quickly became clear things wouldn’t work out. At the Beijing camp, the sports school students and street skaters were separated into two streams, and the coaches clearly preferred working with the sports school athletes. After two months, almost all the veteran skaters — including Yuan — were sent home.
“The national team obviously wants people who are obedient,” Yuan says. “There are many good skaters on the street who are great people, but some may not be. And if you want to represent the country, you have to be careful about these things.”
Though a handful of street skaters from the other camps made the national squad, the majority were students. Yuan admits she was impressed by how quickly the sports school recruits progressed.
“For us, if the coaches tell us to do a trick and we don’t want to do it … it’s not going to work,” she says. “But for them, they just have to do what the teachers taught them.”
Since leaving the camp, Yuan has all but abandoned her dreams of becoming a pro skater. She has decided to grow up and focus on making a living, she says. She now works a sales job in Shanghai and rarely touches her deck.
“Skateboarding used to be my dearest friend,” says Yuan. “Now, it’s buried deep in my heart.”
China’s sports authorities, however, insist Tokyo 2020 will prove to be a game-changer for the country’s skateboarding scene.
“Even though skateboarding has existed in China for 30 years, it has only entered the mainstream and the development fast lane since the Olympics decision,” says Zeng Bingfeng, an official at the China Roller Sports Association who isn’t related to Zeng Wenhui.
Yuan Fei, a manager at skating apparel brand Vans China and a skateboarding veteran of 30 years, also predicts the sport will benefit, especially economically, from becoming an Olympic event.
“Skateboarding training will be everywhere and more capital will be attracted to the skateboarding scene,” says Yuan, who isn’t related to Yuan Zhenzhen. “There will also be a better market for skateboarding apparel and gear.”
Zhang Xin competes in the women’s park open qualifier at the 2021 Dew Tour in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., May 20, 2021. Sean M. Haffey via People Visual
Zhang, meanwhile, is simply focusing on nailing her routine next week. The prospect of performing at the Games is both exciting and nerve-wracking, she says.
“I just hope to be calm during the competition,” says Zhang. “I’ll try my best to showcase my abilities.”
The women’s park competition will take place on August 4, with Zhang facing up against top skaters like the Japanese duo Misugu Okamoto and Sakura Yosozumi and Great Britain’s Sky Brown. Her teammate Zeng will compete a week earlier, on July 26. The favorites for her event include Brazil’s Pamela Rosa and Rayssa Leal as well as Aori Nishimura of Japan.
Yuan Fei is realistic about the Chinese pair’s chances of winning, but he’s hopeful they might pull off a surprise.
“They’re not expected to win medals, but who knows what will happen?” he says. “After all, the Chinese skaters train differently from skaters in most countries. And in this competition, there are elements of randomness and luck.”
And for Yuan Fei, Tokyo is just the beginning. He has higher hopes for the 2024 Paris Olympics, which could be a breakthrough moment, particularly for China’s female skateboarders.
“Given the way they’re trained, they will reach another level in three years,” says Yuan Fei.
Contributions: Qiu Zhiyong; editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Zhang Xin competes in the finals of the 18th Asian Games, in Palembang, Indonesia, Aug. 29, 2018. Cheng Min/Xinhua)