Speaking of the Olympics…. In 2001, while I was living in Hong Kong, I interviewed China’s Olympic medal-winning ice skating star, Chen Lu. I remembered it as I was reading today about China and the Olympics, and thought it might be worth posting on my blog. Here it is, in full.
The “Iron Butterfly” is how the local Hong Kong media refer to the magnificent Chen Lu, who at 24 is China’s greatest and best-loved skater and winner of two Olympics bronze medals. “When I skate,” she says, “I always imagine myself as a butterfly flapping my wings happily.”
I would be surprised if anyone meeting Chen Lu for the first time didn’t have the same initial impression I did: this woman is astonishingly beautiful. It’s not only her long flowing hair and sculpted features and high regal cheekbones. She simply radiates beauty and charisma. It’s certainly a feminine beauty, but it’s a bit of a paradox: while her looks are soft and delicate, she also emanates strength, vitality, determination, even power. In other words, this is a tough lady, one you do not want to mess with.
We met at one of Hong Kong’s two ice skating rinks, both owned and operated by the illustrious Ted Wilson, a professional coach and another celebrity in the world of figure skating. I felt very privileged to be in the presence of Asia’s best-known ice-skating legend.
Chen Lu first won the bronze medal at the 1994 Olympics when she was only 18. But life wasn’t easy for her after that. She fractured her right foot only a few months later, and went through a long period of pain and heartbreak as she battled to overcome the injury.
The miracle of her career and her greatest personal triumph was in 1998, when she again won the Olympics bronze medal. “The year before that, she cam in 25th in the world,” Ted Wilson interjected. “Then in 1998, after everyone thought she was finished, she came in 3rd in the Olympics.” Chen Lu agrees that it was the proudest moment of her life.
I asked the Iron Butterfly to tell me about how she first discovered she could skate.
“I started skating when I was very young, four years old. My family never pressured me. In my hometown it’s very cold, and during the wintertime everybody went out skating. My father was on a national hockey team and later on he became a hockey coach. So it was really kind of natural that I skated. I never felt I was being forced to skate, I loved it. And when I was young I loved to dance. Whenever I heard music playing as a little girl I just started dancing, and my father told me that skating was a good sport and that I should try it because I loved dancing and I was very pretty. So I started skating, and it just happened – I couldn’t stop.”
But skating for fun and skating for a living are two different things. Once she decided to be a skater, the training regimen as practiced in Mainland China is difficult, even brutal.
“Training in China is very different than in the US,” Chen Lu explained. “The skaters move away from their families and live with their team. We had to live in a dormitory year after year and we couldn’t see our parents very much. And there were so many pressures from the coaches, and from the government – it is not easy. It’s totally different from in the United States.”
Of course, being an athlete means you’re limited to a set number of years when you can be among the best. Chen Lu is philosophical about having to retire from the Olympics team after 1998.
“Whatever you do, especially if you’re an athlete, you only have a certain number of years when you can be on top, and you can’t be winning all the time, you can’t keep going up. So if you get there and you get to the top, there comes a time when you decide you have to do other things, like becoming a professional skater. After the 1998 Olympics, that’s what I decided to do.”
Now, spending most of her time in the United States, Chen Lu performs in professional competitions, teaches and travels. Moving from the East to the West was a challenge for her, and it took her many months to adapt to the strange ways of the Westerners.
“There were so many things that were different when I first moved,” Chen Lu said. “One thing that was really different was the food. I remember when for the first time I was in America, and I saw people eating salad, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t eat that – the vegetables haven’t been cooked. You want me to eat that? No way!’ It was things like that that were hard for me to get used to. Then, I saw people eating steak. I just couldn’t believe it. How could they eat such big, huge pieces of beef? It seemed so different. But now, I’ve got used to it and it’s just fine.”
Chen Lu now lives in Scottsdale Arizona. Two years ago she wrote a book about her skating experiences, Butterfly on Ice, chronicling her rise to international stardom.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.