Profile, Limin Liu, Olympic silver medalist
By Gang Wu, for Jour Writing 607, due November 2, 2004
The first time I met Limin Liu, I did not recognize she was the woman who had won a dozen swimming world championships and an Olympic silver medal for China, and renewed world record not only once. She was sitting at the desk in a Chinese student’s apartment, writing her homework for an economics class in the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). With a height of about 5.6 feet, she did not seem to have the robust body frame typically-seen among the mainstream world-class swimmers. Her slightly chubby face and unpretentious smiles gave me nothing but an impression of an easy-going Chinese fellow student.
Only when she was introduced to me, did the name Limin Liu strike me home of somebody who used to shine so brightly. It was one of the household names in early 1990s when Chinese women’s swimming team prevailed over world swimming pools. After Yong Zhuang, Wenyi Yang, Li Lin, Hong Qian and Xiaohong Wang, known as “Five Golden Flowers,” shook the world with four gold medals and five silvers in the swimming contests of the 1992 Olympics, a number of younger women, including Limin Liu, flooded the Chinese media as “Little Flowers” in the following years when they took away gold medals one after another in the world championships.
Liu won her first world-level gold medal in 1993, a 200-meter butterfly gold in the first World Short Course Championships. The second year she secured her throne in women’s butterfly by winning both the 100-meter and 200-meter at the 1994 World Championships in Rome, Italy. She was also on the Chinese team winning the world record-breaking 4x100-meter medley at that event.
What distinguished her from the other “Little Flowers” was her consistent performance, which, as her long-time coach Ge Zhao said, was a result of her self-motivation.
While the Chinese women’s swimming team sank with drug-abuse scandals in late 1994 and the following years, Liu was one of a few who kept clean and stable in her performance. She was the only Chinese woman who won a gold medal in the 1995 World Short Course Championships. The result that time also set a new world record. Even after she came to study in the business school of the UNR in 1998, she still showed her strength and consistence. She got three gold medals in 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly of the 1999 and 2000 NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Championships of the United States, which was competed by world-class athletes.
“I am clear what my goal was,” Liu said. “I don’t have the best body, but I was the most hard-working swimmer.”
Most of the time after she came to the United States, she was training on herself. The coach in the UNR gave her freedom to design her own training plan. She kept contact with coach Zhao back in China via emails, discussing the best ways to keep her fit.
“Zhao is like my mentor and father, he was always with me all these years,” she said.
Born in 1976 in the central China city of Wuhan along Yangtze River, Liu began learning swimming at the age of five. Since she was recruited into the provincial swimming team of Hubei at the age of 12, Zhao had been her coach watching her all the way from national champions to Asian and world champions. He was also the one who gave her a comforting hug when she lost the gold medal by merely 0.01 second at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
In China, Olympics champion is the life dream of every athlete, because only that is considered the real champion in the world. At her height of athletic career, Liu wanted that medal so much. She believed she could make it. But life is often a joke.
“In the earlier days after that failure, I was so down,” she said. “In China if you win a gold medal, you are a hero. But if you win a silver, you are just a loser. A silver doesn’t mean anything.”
She thought about quit. There happened to be a full scholarship for a BA in international trade in the UNR. She took it. But being a college student proved to be even more challenging than getting world championships.
Since she joined the Hubei provincial swimming team at the age of 12, she had learnt nothing but some Chinese and math in school. She did not learn physics and chemistry, nor advanced math that Chinese middle school students are required for college entrance examination. Before she decided to come to the United States and took a short language class in China, she had never learned any English.
“I was completely at a loss in the first semester,” Liu recalled.
Besides intensive language class, she had to take other classes. She could barely understand what the teacher was talking about, except for some familiar words now and then, which made no sense. As a trade for the scholarship, she had to go through considerable amount of daily training in order to attend swimming contests representing the UNR. She had never stayed up late into night in China. Now she often had to study till the middle of the night, “because I have to spend double time on understanding what were in the textbooks and figuring out what to do with the assignments.”
Shunfeng Song, an economics professor who had taught Liu, said that Liu had been having difficulty in “quantitative skills.”
“Compared with her American classmates, she is not the worst at all,” Song said. “But from the expectation of most Chinese students who are doing very well with math and statistics in the United States, she still needs more work.”
Song also pointed out her need to improve her English writing, though he understood her background and the fact that she missed quite a number of classes in the first two years because she had to go through a lot of training and attend contests.
Liu admitted she was having great difficulty in the first year, when she failed the writing class and had to take it again.
“I cried so hard when I was told that I did not pass,” Liu said. She could not help crying again when she called her coach Zhao. She had always been champions, she could not bear the fact that she could have failed a class, she said.
Zhao comforted her again, saying she was not supposed to be good at everything. “Will you be a master at nuclear science if we send you to study that in the top Chinese universities Tsinghua or Beijing University?” Liu quoted him as saying.
Professor Song said she was a serious student. “She always aims high and wants to improve herself,” Song said.
She did not give up. She finished the Bachelor’s degree in 2002 and continued to enroll in a master program in the business school of the UNR. She still has difficulty in classes involving even more complicated math. But she hangs on. When she has problems, she is not reluctant to ask her classmates for help.
“She might not understand the problem when I explained to her the first time, but she was stubborn, she won’t give up until she figured it out,” said Dan Li, a newly-come Chinese graduate student.
Before graduating next year, Liu has been serving as China Market manager of the Nevada state tourism commission, based in Carson City. Everyday she has to drive back and forth from Carson and Reno. She said she likes it.
Every year in around March she will be sent back to China to promote the tourism in Nevada. That is her happiest time, she said.
She is also planning to do business in China in the future. Actually she has just opened a swimming-training school in her hometown Wuhan.
“When sports become more and more like an industry instead of government-run institutions in the past, we’ll see a profitable big market in the near future,” she said.
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