After winning a precious silver medal at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, pairs skater Zhang Dan became a household name in China and has continued to work in the sport since retiring from competition.
With the Beijing 2022 Games just two weeks away, the country is embarking on an exciting new era in its winter sports odyssey, and one which Zhang Dan feels proud and privileged to be part of.
"I was asked recently how I felt when the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics were staged, and I said I envied our summer athletes so much when I sat in front of the TV to see the opening ceremony. I wondered if I would ever see us participate in a Winter Olympics in China," Zhang Dan told China Daily in an exclusive online interview on Weibo on Friday.
"Finally this year, we have this wonderful opportunity with the Beijing Winter Olympics. As a part of the Chinese ice and snow sports community, I'm so proud and excited to welcome the arrival of Beijing 2022. I have witnessed China's winter sports go from strength to strength through the years."
The most memorable moment of Zhang Dan's career could be considered a perfect embodiment of the Olympic spirit.
Partnering with Zhang Hao at the 2006 Turin Games, Zhang Dan injured herself in a fall as the pair narrowly failed to execute a quadruple salchow, a jump which had never before been landed in competition.
Rather than quitting, however, Zhang Dan skated through the pain to finish the program and win silver to huge acclaim from fans and media.
"The moment I fell down I just felt my whole world collapsed," Zhang Dan recalled to China Daily. "We were good enough to win gold at that Olympics, and we wanted the gold so much. At that moment, I knew the mistake would cost me the gold, and I thought would cost us any medal.
"I hit the ice hard but initially I wasn't sure how bad the injury was. Zhang Hao helped me back on my feet and accompanied me off the ice. But instead of worrying too much about the injury, I was thinking this was now or never. I told myself to just give everything I had left to finish the competition.
"Despite losing the gold, I should not just quit. After all, it was the Olympic Games, and my partner and I had put in years of hard work for it. If I simply walked away from it, it would be a blip on my career forever. So I tried my best to the end and then I could leave with no regrets."
Zhang Dan says that episode has been a huge influence on her life, encouraging her to "be braver and directly face any difficulties with that Olympic spirit".
Now she hopes her story can inspire China's young aces at Beijing 2022.
"I hope all the Team China athletes can have great results at Beijing 2022. It's a very special experience for any athlete to compete at the Olympic Games in their homeland. And most importantly, I hope they can enjoy the Olympics," said Zhang Dan.
"Athletes are constantly thinking how to have the best performance or make breakthroughs, so sometimes we forget to enjoy the process. As a retired athlete, I always tell youngsters to simply enjoy and not think too much."
The rapid development of China's winter sports industry means youngsters are more likely to both enjoy and succeed at ice and snow sports, reckons Zhang Dan.
"I really envy the current generation of athletes and young skaters. Even when they are very young, they have access to very professional skating gear," she said.
"Now, even kids who are 4 or 5 years old can wear beautiful dresses at figure skating competitions, which was unthinkable when I was a kid. And with more and more indoor venues, they can practice throughout the four seasons.
"When I first practiced skating as a kid, there were not enough indoor venues, and most of them were used to support the training of professional skaters. So when I started out, I could only use outdoor rinks. That meant I needed to wear very heavy cotton-padded clothes to train in temperatures of minus-20 Celsius in Harbin, because at that time we did not even have down jackets."
According to the National Winter Sports Administrative Center, China had built 654 ice rinks and 803 ski resorts by the end of 2021, up 317 percent and 41 percent respectively from 2015, when Beijing won the bid to host the Winter Olympics.
Such development is laying a solid foundation for the businesses operating in winter sports and the outdoor leisure sector, which is forecast to reach a market value of 800 billion yuan ($125.7 billion) by the end of this year, according to a national guideline issued by the State Council in 2019.
Things weren't so rosy when Zhang Dan was attempting to carve out her career on the ice. She credits her mother for helping her through those testing times.
"Honestly speaking, before I won my first international medal, I was not sure if I was talented enough to be a top-level figure skater. So I want to thank the support from my mom. She was not sure if I could reach the highest level, but she always believed in me," said Zhang Dan.
"When I was a kid I did not understand why other kids could play and watch cartoons after school but I needed to train on the ice. My mom just told me if you want to achieve something in the future, you need to put in extra effort when you are young.
"I thought about quitting countless times, given the pressure and tiredness, but thanks to the encouragement of my mother I kept trying.
"She'd encourage me every time when I made some breakthroughs. She never set me huge targets, but instead set small goals to push me forward bit by bit. That's how I managed to make the national team and perform on the international stage."
Her passion for the sport has passed to the next generation, with Zhang Dan's daughter now a budding figure skater. She said it's still too early to tell if her daughter will turn professional, and for now she's just happy to be a very proud mom.
"I remember how happy my daughter was when she received her first figure skating dress as a gift from one of my friends. She wore it all day long. She also participated in some competitions, and she looked so cute wearing her dress on the ice," Zhang Dan added.
"When I stood outside the rink looking at her performing for the first time, I was so touched and there were tears in my eyes. I think that's the charm of figure skating."
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