How Gao Tingyu grew to become speed skating Olympic gold medalist

Gao Tingyu of Team China poses with the speed skating men's 500-meter gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Beijing Medals Plaza in Beijing, February 12, 2022. (Photo: CFP)

Chinese speed skater Gao Tingyu won the men's 500-meter gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games at home and bore the flag together with Xu Mengtao for Team China at the closing ceremony at National Stadium on Sunday.

It's fair to say that Gao's career as an athlete reached a new summit.

But in an interview with China Media Group (CMG) Gao revealed that he had expected to do better than 34.32 seconds in the speed skating final, though it's already a new Olympic record for the event. He suffered a leg injury by accident the day before.

"I had acupuncture therapy the night before with over 10 needles to feel a bit better," Gao said. "After that, I had to re-evaluate my performance on the following day, including how to skate, how control it and how to achieve the best performance. I had to start over to do a new mental simulation of the race again. There's also a backup plan, that I give up."

Gao Tingyu of Team China competes in the speed skating men's 500-meter race at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Speed Skating Oval in Beijing, February 12, 2022. (Photo: CFP)

None of that pain or struggle could be spotted in Gao's face when he was racing in the final on February 12. "You could afford to look concerned. If your opponents know your injury or other problems, they will have mental advantage over you," Gao told CMG. He was not giving his full speed in the race because safety comes first. If he trips, it will be game over.

Back at PyeongChang 2018, Gao already made a breakthrough for Team China by pocketing the bronze medal in the speed skating men's 500-meter event. He said he wanted to change the color of his medal in four years after the race. Many saw him as a rising star at that time, but Gao regressed after the 2018 Winter Games with continuous underperformance at the World Cup.

Gao decided to return to the Heilongjiang Provincial team in early 2020 and spent eight months there recovering from injuries as well as training. Some worried that he might miss the opportunity to attend Beijing 2022 for joining the provincial team, but Gao chose to embrace the risk.

"If I'm not in 100-percent form, it will be meaningless even I go to the 2022 Winter Olympics," Gao said.

Gao Tingyu of Team China leaps onto the podium after winning the speed skating men's 500-meter gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, February 12, 2022. (Photo: CFP)

Most people could hardly imagine what Gao went through in his career. He wasn't a born genius skater and, thus, was making slow progress from local team to the national team when he was a teenager. The slump after PyeongChang 2018 was also very difficult.

However, Gao has never given up. "Anyone could give up and what feels comfortable to do. But if you spare yourself while everyone else is trying to help you, you will fail their expectations. If I give up in the middle, I could be going home before 2018 and have nothing to with the first men's speed skating gold of Team China," Gao told CMG.

Gao's efforts, patience and resilience paid off in the end. He first set a new Chinese domestic record of men's 500-meter race of 33.83 records in September. Then in November, he won his first World Cup title in Poland. When he appeared at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Games on February, he was one of the two flagbearers for Team China. Eight days later, Gao made history in the speed skating men's 500-meter rate by setting the new Olympic record of 34.32 seconds and the gold medal.

Gao leaped to the podium, paying tribute to Chinese sprinting legend Liu Xiang, who did the same after winning the men's 110-meter hurdles gold medal at Athens 2004.

"My next goal is to surpass myself, I want to see where my limit is," Gao said.