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    Q & A

    Wu Yanni: The Trials and Triumphs of China’s Star Athlete

    China’s top female hurdler, who has won praise and criticism for her outlandish style and performances on the track, talks about injuries, the Olympics, and coping with pressure.
    May 24, 2024#sports#Q&A

    For Chinese track and field star Wu Yanni, the past 12 months have brought incredible highs and devastating lows — from her disastrous false start in the Asian Games last fall to recently smashing her personal best in the 100-meter hurdles in preparation for the Paris Olympics.

    She endured harsh criticism after disappointing in two Diamond League matches in April, in which she placed last against European and American runners with a time of 13.04 seconds. Yet, this month she bounced back, setting a new PB of 12.8 seconds to win her first outdoor track title at a World Continental Tour Gold event in Tokyo, Japan.

    Since making a splash on the track, Wu has attracted just as much interest for her results as for her tattoos, use of makeup, and choice of running outfits, with no shortage of voices accusing her of caring more about her appearance than her finishing time. Not that she cares, as Wu believes in having the “courage to be disliked.”

    Born in 1997 in Zigong, in the southwestern Sichuan province, Wu was an energetic child, initially studying dancing. At 9 years old, she took part in a sports contest in Neijiang, also in Sichuan, when she was spotted by a coach who saw her potential as a track and field athlete. After some time training in the provincial capital Chengdu, she was selected for the Beijing Sports University hurdles team in 2012, marking the start of her career. She made her debut in China’s national athletics squad in 2019.

    Wu quickly became a rising star. She won gold at the National Games of China in 2018 and 2020, and the National Track and Field Championships in 2021 and 2023, as well as having impressed at the world championships, and the Olympics and Asian Games trials. She ranks number one among Chinese female athletes in the 100-meter hurdles.

    However, she made headlines of a different kind at last year’s Asian Games in Hangzhou, capital of the eastern Zhejiang province, when she was disqualified for a false start after finishing second. This was followed by intense public scrutiny and online criticism. Nevertheless, she amassed 3.2 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, with many praising Wu for her confidence, bravery, and standout style.

    In August, Wu secured her place at the 2024 Paris Olympics after setting a new PB at the World University Games, held in Chengdu, making her the first athlete from Sichuan to qualify.

    Following is Wu in conversation with The Paper:

    The Paper: How has the past year been for you overall?

    Wu: I think it’s been fun. In the past, I competed just to compete, but now I have a playful attitude toward competitions. That’s not to say I don’t respect the competition; I’m just trying to make myself relax a bit.

    The Paper: What do you mean by “playful” attitude?

    Wu: Concentrating on the process while ignoring the outcome.

    The Paper: What made you adopt this approach?

    Wu: During China’s 2021 National Games and last year’s Asian Games in Hangzhou, I experienced the worst possible moment that could happen in an athlete’s career. Maybe after that, nothing could ever be as bad. Having experienced that, I can now chill out a bit.

    The Paper: How did you feel in competitions this year?

    Wu: The draw of competitive sports is the idea that you’re never the strongest athlete. It’s really brutal. You’re really just competing against yourself. It’s an extremely painful process, but I think that’s the attraction. When you’re young, you’re trying to test your limits, always trying to get better. I’m naturally an attention-seeking show-off, but participating in these competitions has made me more reserved.

    The Paper: Is competing internationally a lot more stressful?

    Wu: No, I tell myself: “Keep up with them, don’t mess up the pace.” This is what I require of myself. But in this competition (the Diamond League at Xiamen, Fujian province, in April), my pace was all over the place.

    The Paper: So do you care less now about winning?

    Wu: I thought way too much about winning in the past. When I lost at the 2021 National Games of China, that was a turning point in my life. I lost the champion title and, in the end, only came second, but I wasn’t willing to give up. Last year at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, maybe I was too nervous, and there were a lot of other factors, all of which led to my false start. Recently, I’ve been talking to a lot of top-quality athletes in China, and they’ve been telling me not to care about the results, just do a good job running and the outcome naturally won’t be bad.

    The Paper: What factors do you believe influence the results at sports competitions?

    Wu: A lot of things. It could come from the world around you, or from yourself as an athlete. For example, some fans yell, “Sister Ni, you got this!” and then I think, “I’ve got to finish in a good time and not let them down.” But if I can’t get the stress under control, it’s easy to get a bad result and then easy to let that consume me on the inside. On the other hand, the more criticism I receive about caring about my looks, or about being pretentious, the more I want to show them: This girl’s got strength, she gets good results, so you keep on criticizing me and I’ll eat it up. I have to keep training, I have to keep competing.

    The Paper: How do you cope with that kind of criticism?

    Wu: I know my own strength. The more they criticize me, the happier I am, the more motivated I am. If you don’t believe it, just you wait.

    The Paper: Recently, the criticism has centered on two aspects: your attire on the track and your finishing time. Were you happy with your results in the Diamond League meet at Xiamen?

    Wu: I didn’t meet the goal I’d set for myself, but if I compare it with my results in the first half of 2023, I’m still very content. That day when I was getting used to the arena in Xiamen, I was in great shape, but because there’s this gap in performance between athletes from Asia and those from Europe and the United States, I wanted to keep up with them and set a decent time. But they were too fast, and I couldn’t keep up. This was my second time competing against the world’s top athletes, so in my opinion, it could have been due to both my mentality and experience. I still have a lot to learn.

    The Paper: Tell us a little about your experiences growing up.

    Wu: I was born in a small town in Fushun County within the city of Zigong, Sichuan province. From a young age, I was told I had a hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I didn’t really like studying, I just liked singing, dancing, running … so there were always people saying to my family, “You need to take care of Wu Yanni. Look, she just can’t sit still.” One time my mom said to me, “Wu Yanni, if you sit there for one minute, I’ll give you 100 yuan.” I said, “I’m not sitting, even if you give me a beating, I won’t sit.” I liked playing with marbles, race cars, and I liked riding bikes … and ever since I was young, the more I was told not to do something, the more I wanted to do it.

    The Paper: When did you decide you wanted to get involved in track and field?

    Wu: I started running track and field in 2009. At the time, because my mom was running a small business, we moved from Zigong to Neijiang (also in Sichuan). There was a time when I was at a sports meet in the city and I got noticed by a youth coach. He said to me then, “Would you be willing to get into track and field?” He said my legs were long, I could run fast, I’d have an advantage in track and field, and I had the potential to become an athlete. I was totally clueless about track and field. I started dancing when I was 3 years old, and I had practiced folk dancing for nine years. My role model then was Yang Liping; I liked her peacock dance. I’m a rebellious person. I was thinking about how I had to stretch every day, and after stretching I also had to work on my physique, and then dance. I felt this was tiring and dull, and it didn’t seem as good as going outside to run. So, when my mom asked me if I wanted to go run track and field, I said yes.

    The Paper: What would you say was your most difficult time?

    Wu: When I was 16 or 17 I had a ruptured disk. At first, my mom didn’t believe it. She said that only old people encounter this kind of medical problem. I was young, and I was curious about my coach’s new techniques. I wanted to push myself and see where my limits were. The result was that, because my movements were irregular, my lower back got injured. But I had to keep going to practice. I suppressed the pain and fought on. I made the team doctor tape up my muscles. Each time, I’d wait for everyone to leave. I’d still be on the track, and my coach would ask me, “You’re still here?” and I’d say, “Don’t worry, coach, I just want to stretch a bit.” After saying this, I’d secretly run to the bathroom to cry, I was in so much pain. During that period, I’d go to sleep and be woken up in the middle of the night by the pain in my lower back. I needed to stretch — only then would I get some relief from the pain. So, I would gently get down from the top bunk and very carefully do stretches. Everyone in the bedroom would be fast asleep, so I couldn’t disturb them. I would do this until 7 a.m., when I would quietly climb back into bed and pretend I had just woken up.

    The Paper: How did you get through that?

    Wu: Later, after the team captain found out about my injury, he asked the doctor to help. Each day I would take medication and use hot compresses, and after each practice, I would stretch and do some massage. It slowly got better. At the first National Youth Games, where I became champion, I didn’t fall short of what everyone was expecting of me. I’m typically super talkative, but when I was preparing for the first National Youth Games, except for my coach and the team doctor, I hardly spoke to anyone for two months. Every day I’d put on my headphones and not talk. I’d just watch TV or read books. I did it to win.

    The Paper: Was it important to you at the time to become a champion?

    Wu: I thought, “Other people can become champions, why can’t I?” I had such a strong desire to win, and I’m a Leo to boot — from when I was very young, I’ve always wanted to win. I didn’t want to disappoint my mom or my coach. At the 2021 National Games, I was also gunning to take away the gold medal, but in the end, I only got second place. After the competition, I was very unhappy and cried. Apart from the annual championship, the National Games is China’s biggest competition — it’s extremely important.

    The Paper: You’ve said that for a whole year you couldn’t escape from the shadow that it cast over you. How did you overcome that?

    Wu: I was in a slump. I would always be thinking that people were looking at me and laughing at me. During the day, I was normal on the surface, but at night I would pull a quilt over me and secretly cry. That year, I also didn’t participate in any competitions. I think I only competed in one in China, and then later went to Columbia in the U.S. to train. While I was training there, I didn’t compete at all.

    The Paper: How has your physical recovery been?

    Wu: I regularly go to the hospital to do recovery training. So far, I’ve been recovering well. Getting injured is common for athletes. If you keep a positive mindset, this type of injury heals fast. But if you’ve got serious mental stuff going on, it will take a bit longer.

    The Paper: How do you feel about being number one in the country at the 100-meter hurdles?

    Wu: My main competitors now are European and American athletes. Regarding Asian athletes, everyone is at about the same level — it just depends on who is in better condition.

    The Paper: It seems now you enjoy competing more?

    Wu: Yes, I really enjoy it. I feel like competitions are exciting, and I like excitement. After the 2021 National Games of China, I refused to look at videos of myself competing for a whole year. It wasn’t until I returned to China after the second year of training that I broke down and scrolled on Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) and saw a video of me. After I watched it twice, I called my mom to tell her, and I started to cry. My mom sighed and said, “You’re grown up now. You can accept your own imperfections; you can accept your own failures.” From then on, I started feeling like competitions weren’t so terrible, and I started slowly enjoying the act of competing itself.

    The Paper: In 2022, you started competing in makeup.

    Wu: When I started getting decent results at competitions, my mom said to me, “Girls absolutely must wear makeup; it will look better on camera.” But I was lazy. I didn’t want to wear makeup. In the summer of 2023, when I was competing at the indoor track competition in Chengdu, that was the first time I tried to do makeup. I felt like it was a definite improvement over not wearing makeup, as I didn’t look pale and tired like I had before. I look significantly better with some color in my face. Ever since then, every time I compete, I always wear makeup.

    The Paper: The first time you wore makeup, were you worried about how it would be perceived?

    Wu: When everyone’s focus is on my body, I actually perform better. Aren’t they all saying that I have a sort of “performative personality” so that they can laugh at me? Yeah, I act spoiled in public; the bigger the audience, the more excited I get, the more I want to show off. Also, I think that it’s normal for girls to do makeup. You can’t take away a person’s right to care about their appearance.

    The Paper: Are you worried your language will impact the national team?

    Wu: I definitely need to be careful about this aspect, but I think that even if you’re cautious with your words, you don’t want to lose yourself. Winning esteem for your country is an honor and carries with it a real sense of responsibility. Losing myself, on the other hand, is something I won’t do.

    The Paper: It feels like you’ve been receiving nonstop criticism since last year, but at the same time, many people support you and think you’re confident and brave, and that you have your own style. What do you make of this?

    Wu: My nose is naturally quite sunken. Since I was young, I’ve had very small facial features. When I learned how to do makeup, I would always use it before going onto the track to really exaggerate my nose. This way, when the photographers were taking pictures of me, they would see I had a nose that really sticks out, and that my other facial features were also more distinct. So, when they say, “Wu Yanni got a nose job; she got plastic surgery on her chin …” I get really happy, because to me, that means they’re validating my makeup technique. I’ve only had surgery to get double eyelids.

    There are three types of people who criticize me: The first is people whose viewpoints differ from my own. They can’t stand certain things about me, but they’re nice people. The second type is people who just enjoy being nasty. They use emoji stickers and GIFs of me, mess with me, and slander me. The third type is people who, for the purpose of attracting web traffic, take my words out of context and use me to make money. I don’t like this type of person.

    The Paper: Why do you believe people are so quick to criticize you?

    Wu: Actually, all athletes love performing and love winning. It’s just that everyone’s way of expressing themselves is different. Society is a lot more accepting nowadays, and now you have me coming in with my personality, which demonstrates that there’s nothing wrong with girls being confident, and nothing wrong with girls being showy either.

    The Paper: You’ve been called an internet celebrity. What do you think about this title?

    Wu: I don’t accept the title. I think I’m a strong athlete, and I’ve relied on my own strength to make it to the Paris Olympics this year. I also rely on my own strength to let everyone know that I’m Wu Yanni.

    The Paper: You’ve said in the past that the Chinese Olympic gold medalist hurdler Liu Xiang is your inspiration. How did his success and later misfortune influence you?

    Wu: When Liu Xiang would compete, he had this cool and dominating aura. I don’t know if anyone else picked up on it, but as soon as he stepped onto the track, he was king; he was the brightest star. I’ve rewatched videos of his races many times; he had this ferocity in his eyes, like “I’m definitely going to beat you guys.” He’s my role model.

    The Paper: Do you feel that the way he was criticized online after his withdrawal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics has any similarities to your experience?

    Wu: There are similarities, and there are also differences. Liu Xiang won more than 40 titles for our country, and then he was defamed like that. I, on the other hand, only hold one national title, and I’m second in Asia, but when I’m called out online, I deal with it.

    The Paper: What do the Paris Olympics mean to you?

    Wu: It’s my first Olympics. I actually had the opportunity to compete in the last Olympic Games in Tokyo, but since I was training overseas in 2019, I didn’t have enough points, so I wasn’t able to go in the end.

    The Paper: The world record for women’s 100-meter hurdles was set by Tobi Amusan of Nigeria with a time of 12.12 seconds. Your personal best is 12.76 seconds. What are you aiming for at the Paris Olympics?

    Wu: To break China’s national record: 12.64 seconds.

    Reported by Ming Que, Liu Haonan, and Tang Chao.

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Marianne Gunnarsson; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Wu Yanni makes her iconic gesture ahead of the women’s 100-meter hurdles at the Diamond League meeting in Xiamen, Fujian province, April 2024. VCG)