Retired sports stars target new goals

Gong Weijie gives a free badminton lesson to Tibetan children in Yushu, Qinghai province, in 2017. [Photo provided to]

Former elite athletes use ingrained determination to make fresh starts in life. Zhao Yimeng reports.

After ending a career of days built around a rigorous schedule of training, meals, working out and sleeping, former badminton champion Gong Weijie opted to go into sports education when he retired at the age of 29.

As co-founder of a professional badminton training club in Beijing, Gong turned to a new starting line and dedicated himself to providing a platform that will allow children and teenagers to learn the sport.

Passing up the opportunity to coach the official sports team of Xiamen, Fujian province, Gong opened the club with his business partner, Sun Qihong, to promote physical education in Beijing.

Learning badminton can play an important role in the healthy development of teenagers, and it can also supplement education at school and in the home, according to Gong.

"The idea of 'Keep going, don't give up' can shape a child's personality," he said.

Sun, a sports training graduate from the Capital University of Physical Education and Sports, said the club operates four schools in Beijing, each with three to five coaches, and it has about 2,000 registered members.

"Our coaches are either retired pros or graduates who majored in sports education (with a focus on badminton)," he said.

Gong visits the training schools every week, offering advice to the coaches and sometimes demonstrating shots to students or speaking directly with them.

In videos released on the club's official social media account, Gong demonstrates standard badminton stances in detail and shares techniques used in competitions.

"Nowadays, thanks to the country's development, teenagers live comfortable lives without any worries about food or clothes. However, their lives are so happy that they know little about handling frustration, and sometimes they can't resolve difficulties," the 38-year-old said.

"As they grow up, the sports training they have received will encourage them to carry on when they encounter challenges," he added, noting that he and his colleagues hope the tuition will cultivate a "never say die" spirit.

Gong started playing badminton at age 5. Life was simple when he got up at 5:30 am every day, sat on the back of his parent's bicycle for the journey to the sports school and started training.

At age 11, he went to a new school in Xiamen, where he trained to become a professional badminton player.

When he was 18, Gong was selected for the national badminton team and later beat Danish player Peter Gade, who topped the world rankings from 1998 to 2001.

Gong was a rising star in the national team, but in 2009, he injured an ankle the day before the China Open, prefiguring his early retirement from badminton.

Despite several operations and medical rehabilitation, the injury still caused him great pain, so Gong was forced to end his career on the badminton court at age 26.

However, he didn't sign a retirement contract with Chinese sports authorities until he was 29, and the three-year recovery period was a difficult time. "It was a transitional period. It was really difficult. There are no words to describe it," he said.

Gong shows children how to hold a badminton racket at a sports club in Wuhan, Hubei province, in 2018. [Photo provided to]

The "never give up" mantra familiar to every athlete provided important mental support for Gong during his transition toward official retirement.

"The inner strength I had gained from every loss had made me strong, and it supported me when I was in a trough, blighted by injuries," he recalled.

The former elite competitor said he eventually entered retirement willingly and with an easy heart.

Now, he is content with a new career in the field of sports education, and he said many of his sporting peers are also in a good place.

"I think Chinese athletes are really happy, at least in the field of badminton. Thanks to the training and guarantees provided by the authorities, our athletes produced great performances at the Tokyo Olympic Games this year," he said.

Many of his friends in sports have found post-retirement careers: some have become coaches, training the next generation of champions; some entered the world of commerce; while others have started businesses, in areas such as sports education.

"No matter what they chose, most of them lead contented lives as far as I can see," Gong said.

Academic adventures

This summer, Deng Linlin, 29, gained a master's after studying at Beijing Sport University and being an exchange student at California Baptist University in the United States. It's another step in the world of academia after getting a bachelor's from Peking University.

When she retired from gymnastics, the two-time Olympic gold medalist set out on a new adventure.

Starting at age 6, gymnastics training was the only thing in her life, apart from eating and sleeping. She couldn't even remember her parents' involvement at key moments in her life, she told People, an online news portal, in 2016.

After retiring from the national gymnastics team in 2013, Deng was recommended for admission to the School of International Studies at Peking University.

She found school life much more complicated than her rigorous training regime. The freshman was confused when she entered the college, having no idea of how to register for classes or even how to borrow a book from the library.

After gaining her first degree, the former high-caliber athlete was offered various opportunities, but she was unsure about her future.

When she started to explore her options, a critical-thinking class she had attended at the university inspired the young woman to identify her deepest wishes and express her own opinions.

She realized that with so many different possibilities, there weren't fixed answers in life, unlike the absolute compliance of the sports field.

One thing was for sure-she wanted to explore the wider world. So, she continued to pursue higher education in China and overseas, earning top marks in a different competitive environment.

She chose to return to a sports-based career. This year, she was appointed as a judge at an annual gymnastics event for teenagers. She will also join the Anhui Provincial Bureau of Sports and contribute to the provincial sports charity.

Gong and Deng have embarked on their new journeys with a sense of dedication instilled by their years as star athletes.

Despite leaving their familiar surroundings, they are determined to never give up on the fresh challenges posed by life, and they have once again become strong figures despite their sometimes difficult transitions.