Olympic sailing champion Xu Lijia has become a formidable sports journalist after her retirement. Speaking with Tokyo 2020, she shares how she connected the dots as a former athlete and media professional - and why it is still her dream to keep sailing
In mid-May, Xu Lijia shared a picture of herself overlooking the Weymouth Bay on the south coast of England. The sea is calm and peaceful.
Now let’s turn back the clock to 6 August 2012, when the bay was shrouded in an atmosphere of anxiety.
The women’s laser radial sailing final of London 2012 was about to start and just one point separating the top four sailors in the medal race: Xu from the People’s Republic of China, Marit Bouwmeester from the Netherlands, Annalise Murphy from Republic of Ireland, and Evi Van Acker from Belgium.
In this winner-take-all race, Xu showed her composure and skills. Despite a less ideal start, she managed to lead the front and claimed gold - Asia’s first ever in dinghy sailing.
2012 Getty Images
A person who seldomly shows her emotion openly, Xu could not help but shout for her victory.
Eight years later when she revisited the scene, Xu told Tokyo 2020 that the scream echoed her two-decade-long dedication to sailing, as well as the ups and downs of her journey.
“It’s not only about myself because there is teamwork behind every gold medal,” she said. “The efforts of everyone, including the supporting team, my coach and training partners, paid off. So I was very happy.”
If Tokyo 2020 were not postponed, she would have already set off for Tokyo this month, not as an athlete, but as a media professional - a career she pursued following her retirement after Rio 2016.
As a sailing athlete
Xu was born in Shanghai, People's Republic of China in 1987. Her first venture into sailing came at the age of 10, when she started with the small single-handed dinghy Optimist. During the past 22 years, her passion for the sport has grown ever more.
“What’s most appealing [thing] to me about sailing is the feeling of freedom and romance. When I am at sea and alone, I am free, unbound by the rules on earth. I am also in intimate interaction with nature, really being part of it,” she said joyously.
She got her first World Championships title in Optimist class when she was 14. In 2006, she claimed her first World Championships title in Laser Radial. And in just two years, when she made her debut at Beijing 2008, she won her nations the first medal in sailing events — a bronze in laser radial.
2008 Getty Images
Compared with having the honour of being a champion, she was more grateful that sailing made her a better person. Her years of sailing at sea helped her realise the importance of nature.
“We have been surrounded by nature, by the ocean. Every time we saw rubbish floating on the water or marine animals dying of sea pollution, we feel sad,” she said.
At the same time, the unpredictability of sea makes her more appreciative of what she would take for granted the otherwise, like laying on solid land or having a fresh meal.
The twists and turns of her sailing career also made her a more optimistic person.
Born with only half the hearing of an average person and very poor vision in her left eye, she encountered various challenges training. In 2002, a tumour was discovered in her left thigh bone, which meant she could not make the team for Athens 2004. Then before London 2012, she had to stop training for two months because of a fracture.
“Every time I had to undergo surgery and miss training for half a year, even one year, I would make full use of the time and get recharged by trying out new things, such as learning English or reading sailing books,” she recalled.
Transition to a new role
After Rio 2016, her third Olympic Games, Xu made the hard choice to retire due to the enduring injuries.
“The Olympic Games only account for 10 per cent of my life. There are 90 per cent remains to be explored,” she said in one of her early interviews.
Working as a sport media professional is one of the new roles she decided to pursue. In 2017, she studied a master's degree in Sports Broadcast Journalism at Solent University in Great Britain, hoping that it will help her promote the culture of sailing and sports in general.
This new passion “enables her to keep in close touch with sports which she loves deeply”.
However, it was not an easy new role to take.
She had to start with the ABCs from pronunciation, video shooting, and editing. However, in the past three years, she made huge strides in her new career. She launched her own podcast and video channel producing content ranging from sailing, reviews and athlete interviews. Olympic race walking champion WANG Liping and former competitor Annalise Murphy were on her guest list.
Xu finally connected the dots as a sailor and sport journalist.
“We have something in common. That is the constant pursuit of the Olympic spirit, the ceaseless objective of challenging oneself to become better,” she said. “And during the journey, all of us encountered various difficulties.”
Besides this, she also collaborated with a Chinese cartoonist and published a comic book about sailing.
Either as an athlete or a sports journalist, I will spare no efforts and hope that my passion for sailing can strike a chord with others.
Life during the pandemic
Like others, her life was greatly affected by the pandemic.
Living in Weymouth, she used to go back to People's Republic of China every other month for business or personal trips. But since the outbreak, she had to cancel all her overseas work plans.
Again, the optimism she got from sailing kept her chin up.
“Although all the sport events are put on hold and we could not go outside, we can make use of the time at home, such as reading more,” she explained.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, she has been sharing home exercising tips through social media.
“Because the public is paying more attention to fitness and health, I get the chance to share with them things other than sailing,” she said
In the long run, if athletes could encourage the public to have a healthier lifestyle, it would be a great progress for the society.
Looking back at her journey, Xu told Tokyo 2020 that it is an honour to be a sailor. For her, sailing is something she could do her whole life. In fact, she keeps attending training courses on circumnavigation — something she hopes to achieve in the future.
With this endearing sailing dream, it is no wonder that when asked about her favourite song, she uttered: “I am sailing. I am sailing. Home again across the sea…”
2012 Getty Images