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'En garde' for paris glory

Olympic champion Sun Yiwen still chasing perfection as she prepares for another lunge at gold this summer

By SHI FUTIAN | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-26 09:50
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Three years after winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics, Chinese fencing star Sun Yiwen is ready to take another lunge at glory in Paris this summer. And the veteran believes she still has what it takes to stand on the world's most prestigious podium.

"It's spring now and my hope is that, like all living things, I can grow in this season, so when it comes to summer, I can have a great result at the Olympics," Sun told China Daily online show Tracking Success.

"The Paris Games are going to be very special for fencers, as the fencing competition will be staged at the Grand Palais. It's a dream place for all the fencers in the world.

"It will be a great honor for me to participate in the Olympics. Being able to compete there is already a dream come true for me. And of course, I hope I can achieve my goal there."

At 31, Sun says she is just as motivated as ever to succeed.

"I don't think age is a big issue, as I believe what matters more is mentality," she said. "When I train or compete with younger fencers, I always consider us the same age. Maybe, I'm slower than them in certain aspects, but that only spurs me on to be as perfect as possible in each practice session."

Sun became a household name in 2021 when she won the women's epee individual gold at the Tokyo Olympics. At the Rio Games in 2016, she won epee individual bronze and a team silver. Reflecting on her Olympic experience, Sun considers it a journey of self-discovery.

"Although I have won medals and a gold at the Olympics, I'm far from being perfect, as I have my own shortcomings in terms of fencing. So I've been totally focused on fixing these shortcomings," she added.

"Beyond winning another medal in Paris, I think what I want more is to make another personal breakthrough. That means becoming a stronger and more versatile epee fencer. I know what my limit is, and how I can push myself to break it.

"For instance, I don't think my attack is good enough. So I always want to figure out ways to improve that. I always ask myself are there better ways to execute my strategies. I've watched videos of my matches countless times, including the gold-medal contest in Tokyo. But I didn't watch it to see how cool I was in front of the cameras — I watched it because I need a mirror or a reflection to identify my weaknesses."

Sun told Tracking Success that she had barely any idea what fencing was before her first taste of the sport as a teenager at school. She joked that some of her family members even thought she was going to study "construction" — which has same pronunciation as fencing in Chinese.

"I still remember when the local fencing team in my hometown was scouting for talent in my school. As a teenager, I was initially attracted to the fencing gear. It looked so cool, and I'd never tried it before," she recalled.

"Fencing was not a very popular sport when I was a kid, and to join that team meant that I had to live in a different city away from home. I was not that sure about it, but my parents told me that it would be a very valuable life experience. So I made the decision to see the wider world."

Trials and tribulations

And so began a journey that so far has lasted 17 years. It hasn't been all smooth sailing, though. Sun recalled that early in her career, the repetition of training gradually began to wear on her, and she wondered whether she had made the right choice. Her parents helped her work through those doubts, encouraging her to keep pursuing what she had started.

After years of hard work, Sun was eventually selected for the national team.

"It was October 2013 when I walked through the front door of the national team's base for the first time. Initially it was just a tryout, and only some of us could stay. In just two days, I competed in 30 trial matches. Over those 48 hours, I lost five kilograms. And I also remember that I only lost one or two matches during that time," said Sun.

"Looking back, I was so energetic then! After all these years, I have been trying to make breakthroughs and grow, although I'm not that young anymore."

After winning gold in Tokyo, Sun found that not everyone believed she should continue in the sport. In fact, she was so close to quitting that she even packed up and sent her belongings back home.

"The Olympics can be a turning point for an athlete. After the Tokyo Games, I thought maybe I wouldn't come back to the national team. So, I sent my stuff back home. But, eventually, I sent it back to the national team from home again," said Sun.

"From the perspective of my performance, well, I'm still competitive in the team thanks to the help of the coaches. I competed at international events for the first time as some sort of substitute in 2013. Then I became the core of the team, and then I reached the podium.

"Throughout the journey, I have given up a lot of things. I barely went out to have fun during the holidays, as I just wanted to have more time to sleep and rest. And I barely had time with my family. After the Tokyo Games, I started to think more than before. I would think of better training methods, better training schedules, and better ways of living with my injuries.

"So, based on the current situation, it's not yet time for me to retire."

Puppy love

But while Sun is a model of dedication, she does allow herself to enjoy some distractions — in particular spending time with her seven Shiba Inu dogs at home.

Initially, she just had two dogs, who later produced five pups. Sun named the firstborn 'Rio', where she competed at her first Olympics.

"The second one is called 'Tokyo', where I competed in my second Olympic Games. But I named the third one 'Champion', as I won gold in Tokyo. And the fourth one is called 'Paris' as I'm going to compete in my third Games there this summer," she said.

"I named the fifth one 'Ruyi', which in Chinese means dreams come true. I can't say I have any favorites, as I love all seven of them. But my mom loves 'Paris' the most."

Let's hope that's a good omen for Sun in the French capital this summer.

Tracking Success delivers the inside story for global sports fans, exploring what makes elite performers tick, and providing insight into their biggest and most intriguing moments on and off the field of play.

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