Courage. Not necessarily my own because like most human beings, I’m somewhat inconsistent in the application, although I hope that I have been courageous more often than cowardly.
An example of courage was on view at the Cup of China figure skating competition, part of the Grand Prix series that leads to the World Championships each year.
In August of 2005, Zhao Hongbo, the male half of China's first figure skating pairs world champions Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue, blew out his Achilles tendon, an injury which is almost always a career ending event for most athletes. During the 2005 Cup of China competition, Zhao Hongbo could be seen backstage walking with a cane.
I cannot even imagine the hard work and conditioning that permitted this brilliant team to come back and compete in the Olympics – but compete they did – winning the Bronze medal against nearly-impossible odds. To say that this was an inspirational feat of determination, hard work, skill and pure courage is obvious. It is what follows that is even more astounding.
At the 2006 Cup of China competition, this brilliant pair skated an almost otherworldly and beautifully powerful program, capturing the Gold Medal by over 20 points ahead of the next closest team. Their skating was passionate, lyrical, powerful and in the end, moved me to tears. My tears were of course for the sheer beauty of their skating but also, I have to say, as a recognition of the courage and dedication that brought these brilliant skaters to this pinnacle once again.
I was once a very determined but not naturally talented ice dancer – a long time ago. I remember what it was like to persevere against difficulties and must confess that I didn’t always possess the requisite courage to do so. Skating past pain requires reserves of strength, determination and faith in your own self that are unimaginable and I can only surmise that when you are the former 2 time World Champions and nearly sidelined forever by an excruciating injury, the strength of character needed is even more stupendous. While it might be easy to say that, after all, the Chinese skate for the glory of the State, what can be seen in Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue (who must trust the strength of her partner’s arms AND legs for her own safety) transcends mere nationalism.
Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue have hinted that they may retire after the 2007 World Championships. He is 33 years of age and though he has managed to somehow resuscitate his injured Achilles tendon in order to return to the ice, there is no doubt that he will never be able to entirely rely on his leg again. But oh, how I wish that somehow they won’t leave us too soon. Among the truly remarkable pair skaters I have ever seen, they rank right up there in the top 3 and there are times when they rival the legendary Oleg and Ludmilla Protapopov! And that in itself would have seemed to me to be unthinkable just five or six years ago!
So to Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue – my complete appreciation and admiration, and no small amount of affection for your courage, strength and the sheer beauty of your pair skating. You are a treasure.