Welcome to Episode 28!
Our guest for STIMY Episode 28 is Lily Xu Lijia.
Lily Xu Lijia (徐莉佳) is a Chinese sailboat racer who won the bronze medal in the women’s Laser Radial class at the 2008 Summer Olympics and the gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London where she was also the flag bearer for China at the closing ceremony. She also medalled at the 2006, 2008, and 2012 World Championships.
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Who is Lily Xu Lijia?
Lily Xu Lijia hasn’t had an easy life. She was born nearly deaf in both ears & nearly blind in one eye. In this STIMY Episode, Lily shared:
- 3:38: Why Lily had short hair until the age of 15
- 4:49: Why Lily told her mother to consider a divorce
- 7:55: Growing up with her disabilities
Entering the Shanghai Sailing Program
Lily first learned swimming at the age of 4, swimming for two hours every day. Her swimming caught the idea of Zhang Ning, who recommended her for a two-week training camp.
Because she was one of the top 3 who attended the camp, she had the opportunity to join Shanghai’s sailing program. But it was an opportunity that came with a lot of difficulties too:
- 10:45: How Zhang Ning, her first coach, discovered and chose her to attend the Shanghai sailing training camp
- 13:30: Life in the Shanghai sailing program
- 15:43: The consequences of disagreeing with what they were told to do in the sailing program
- 16:35: The incident that led Lily to seriously study English
- 19:10: How Lily narrowly escaped death during a training session off the coast of Wujian
Lily was meant to participate in the Athens Olympics but it was not meant to be.
She shares what happened and her experience in 3 subsequent Olympic Games:
- 21:46: Discovering a tumor in her left knee
- 24:33: Why Lily loves sailing
- 27:12: Why she adopted the name Lily
- 28:38: Her experience at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics
- 36:02: Communicating with Jon Emmett during the 2012 London Olympics
- 41:48: Being China’s flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics
Retiring from the Sailing Sport
After spending nearly her whole life racing in the laser radial races, Lily had no choice but to retire from the sport after the Rio Olympics as her body was too broken by then.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Lily shares her plans thereafter:
- 44:00: Retiring from the sport after the 2012 London Olympics
- 45:01: Participating in her third Olympics at Rio;
- 47:34: Working in media
- 53:01: How COVID-19 has impacted her life & career
- 54:44: Being an author
- 55:31: One thing Lily would do differently
- 56:03: What Lily believes in that most people don’t
If you’re looking for more inspirational stories on STIMY, check out:
- Danielle Kettlewell – Olympian & Australian synchronized swimmer who considered herself the “Unlikely Olympian”
- Louisa Gurski – Olympian & two-time British sprint kayaker
- Austen Allred: Co-Founder & CEO of Lambda School – a coding school that lets you attend for FREE using the Income Sharing Agreement (ISA) scheme, where you have to pay back only after earning above $50k/year. Graduates of this Y Combinator backed startup have gone on to work in Fortune 500 companies like Facebook, Google & IBM
- Kendrick Nguyen: Co-Founder of Republic – one of the top 3 equity crowdfunding platforms in the US
- Rahul Chaudhary: Managing Director of Chaudhary Group – a 140-year-old family business empire that is currently headed by his father, Binod Chaudhary (Nepal’s 1st & only Forbes billionaire)
- David Grief: Senior Clerk of Essex Court Chambers – has nurtured the careers of many judges sitting at the UK Supreme Court, ICC & ECHR in Strasbourg (including the former Chief Justice of England & Wales)
- Guy Kawasaki: Chief Evangelist of Canva & Apple
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Ep 28: Xu Lijia - Chinese Sailboat Racer (x2 Olympian Medallist & x3 World Championship Medallist in Laser Radial)
Lily Xu Lijia: For my hearing loss, because I only have half of the ability of ordinary people, actually even though in the past when I was little, I complained a lot. Say why God was so unfair to me that I don't have the similar hearing ability as other people.
But now I actually think the loss of half of my ability helped me to reach the level I'm at now because I'm more focused on my sailing career. I'm more focused on studying, whereas my peers probably spend more time, a bit where you see on some other entertainment.
So, from the face value, people will think, ah, it must be so sad to lose half of the hearing ability. But I couldn't have been more grateful of what I'm able to do now.
Ling Yah: Hey everyone!
Welcome to episode 28 of the So This Is My Why podcast.
Today's guest is Lily Xu Lijia. A two time Olympian medalist and three-time world champion sailboat racer from China. She was also the flag bearer for China in the 2012 London Olympics.
Now Lily didn't have it easy. Born with bad hearing in both ears and nearly blind in her left eye, Lily was sent to the Shanghai sailing program at the age of 10, where she was allowed to see her parents only once a year!
At the age of 12, she nearly lost her life at sea during training when they were caught by a terrible storm. But rather than being traumatized, he made him more determined to conquer the sea.
At the age of 15 when she was about to go through the trials to qualify for the Athens Olympics, she discovered a tumor in the left knee that necessitated immediate surgery to prevent the possibility of her leg being amputated.
In spite of all that and the really painful recovery process, she went on to win the bronze, then gold, in 2 subsequent Olympics, which included China's second ever Olympic goal in sailing in the London Olympics.
Want to find out more about how she did it and what her current plans are? And listen on.
Are you ready?
You were born in 1987 and you grew up in Shanghai in a two bed flat with your parents and your grandparents.
So can you tell me what it was like growing up there and how would your parents have described you as a child?
Lily Xu Lijia: Probably they would describe me as a naughty girl because I couldn't stop for even one minute. Since I have short hair, most of my early years during my childhood, so I grew up, people will recognize me as a tomboy.
So, a bit naughty. Then that's when my parents decided to send me to the swimming school. They hope that after two hours of swimming every day I can be a quieter girl. So my parents will have an easier job to look after me, but I don't think that's the case. So even after two hours of swimming every day, they do find a nightmare to calm me down.
Ling Yah: And you said that you always had short hair. Was it your choice that you wanted short hair?
Lily Xu Lijia: Not really. I think I would really like to have long hair. I don't know why my parents will never help me grow my hair. But my memory says to me, when I was little, I always use a skirt, like put it on my head and then pretending that I'm having long hair.
And later on after 5, when I started to swim, it's just impossible to have long hair because I think maybe the coaches suggest us not to since it will put much more trouble after swimming every day, or even during swimming. I see no problem for most adults swimmers or professional swimmers growing long hair, but I just don't know why.
On one hand, I remember I really want to be girly girl but never got the chance to grow my hair. And then later, after growing into the sailing school, the coaches had the same standards saying we're not allowed to have long hair. It was not until after 15, when I finished my optimist class.
And then transfer into the Olympic sailing class that I started to grow my hair for the very first time at the age of 15.
Ling Yah: And I read as well that your dad could be quite emotional sometimes. And there was a point where your grandma and mom might have to call the ambulance because of certain incidences.
I was quite surprised as a child, you even told your mom that maybe she should consider a divorce and I thought, wow, you were really self-aware at that young age.
And I wonder if you could share what was going through your mind then?
Lily Xu Lijia: I think for me, what's most important is the happiness and health of both my parents. But I just can't see that my mom can lead a happy life with my dad's character.
When I was little, I can see how hurt my mother was. And that's why I would rather sacrifice having a proper family and to have my mom more happiness living on her own, or maybe find another guy. I wouldn't mind, but I just don't want to see them living together and hurt each other.
That's why I was suggest her to divorce because what's the case in China is many Couples are not happy together, but they will like to keep the relationship for their kids. But that's not the case for me. I don't want them to make do with life. So I want them to find their real, other half.
And who they are really happy with. So I wouldn't mind if the people will gossip after me saying oh, Lily's parents divorced and Lily's and growing up in a single parent family, et cetera, I wouldn't mind. All I want is just them to be happy and healthy.
Ling Yah: Was this single parent kind of household, something that society, then we have really frowned upon?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah, I think in China throughout my adulthood, I didn't see a single couple that's truly love with each other, which makes me don't believe love at all. It was not until when I met my husband. That he proved to me for years and years and make me believe in love.
But just for the Chinese society, many people find their other half by friends or family introduced to what they thought to match each other. And would just find the other half and make do with life because that's sort of like a task that you had to do at a certain age around 25.
That's really the case of what I see many couples make do with life. They look after their parents as well as their kids.
But it looks like maybe things are much better nowadays for my generation, because we have more freedom to choose who we want. And it's not such a big thing for not getting married or not having children, which is not okay in the past.
Ling Yah: And I understand that you had a pretty difficult time growing up because you were born with difficult hearing in both ears and also partially blind as well. And I understand that society really did not treat you kindly for that.
Could you share a bit about what it was like growing up for you?
Lily Xu Lijia: I didn't realize I have this problem when I was little.
It was not into, after I went to the sailing team that I realized I'm different from the others.
Whereas in the swimming team, I just find myself struggling, hearing the coach's instruction.
So for example, every time when we were doing the briefing before the actual training, I couldn't hear what the coaches were talking about. So unaware of the actual plan for the day of swimming.
What I tend to do is just to lean my body and then trying to be a little bit closer to the coach and then to hear him or her, but still not able to comprehend a hundred percent.
So what I ended up was I will never swim leading the group. So even if I'm capable of being the first in the group, I tend to be in the second or third so I can follow the first of what our training content are. So. I just thought I wanted to keep swimming and then didn't realize anything unusual. But then later after 10 years old, when I went into the sailing team, I realized more and more that, don't have normal hearing ability compared with other peers.
Especially for example, my sailing coaches will repeat or when and over again. And I misheard many things. So for example, one day my coach asked me to hold a tiller higher. And then in Shanghainese, it's very similar to put our belly out. So when I did my belly out, my coaches just.
Bursting to laugh. but later they bought a speaker, especially for me on the water to help me understand a bit more. but things are much more difficult on land because, when I communicate with my peers, Instead of looking after me or caring about my shortage, they make fun of me.
They would not repeat what they said. If I didn't get them or didn't hear them, they would just really make fun of me. And gradually I became more and more closed to myself and I couldn't really enjoy chatting with my teammates or playing together with them.
That's how I become more independent and then spend all the spare time reading and studying by myself in a corner of a room.
Ling Yah: So before we get into that, I understand that for you to start training in sailing at the age of 10, there was this optimist coach, Zhang Jing, who found you and introduced you to the world of sailing while you were swimming. Could you share that story with us?
Lily Xu Lijia: In China, many sports, we would find athletes from the sport of swimming because that's the most popular one. You got the most population in swimming.
So children start to swim at around five years old. And then for other sports, for example, sailing coaches will think, ah, if I pick some athletes, some sailor that was from the swimming team, then more likely they are braver because they are not afraid of the water. They know they won't sink in the water. So that's why the sailing coaches tend to select sailors in a swimming school. And then, my first sailing coach, Zhang Jing, also picked up some sailors from the Shanghai swimming team.
But the moment when she approached my parents, we just had no idea what sailing is because it's so unpopular in China at the time 20 ish, years ago, we never saw that on television.
We had no idea what that sport is but after some demonstration from Zhang Jing, and then my parents asked me whether I would like to give it a try. I said, Oh, why not? So that's how I started sailing in 1997. And my father drove me to the suburb of Shanghai, and then started to learn sailing in a Lake called Dian Shan Lake.
The training camp was two weeks long. There were about 50 ish kids training together. And then later on, I became one of the three girls selected to join the Shanghai sailing team.
Ling Yah: And what was the training camp like? Cause it was your first time being on a boat, right. And was that boat called Optimist?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah, the boat is called Optimist. I remember the first few times I boarded the boat. I still feel very afraid of the water, even though I know how to swim because that's an unfamiliar sport. And then on a boat, you lost your balance and you may be hit by the boom and or the sail. If it's windy, then we may capsize.
At first, I'm not as brave as Zhang Jing thought I would be. But gradually I became more and more brave and then started to enjoy sailing because it's so much more fun than swimming every day. Every hour is different because we're dealing with nature instead of in an indoor swimming pool.
Ling Yah: And so when you heard the news that you were the top three who could enter the Shanghai sailing program and you had to go back to your parents and tell them that. How were you feeling? How did your parents react?
Lily Xu Lijia: Probably at the time I was too small or too little to understand how my parents would feel.
But since I'm the only child in the family. And then switching from swimming to sailing, there is a big. Difference because swimming, I can study normally. And then after school, I go to swimming for two hours and then my parents would pick me up and go back home together.
Whereas sailing, I have to travel with the team all year round, which means I won't be able to go home apart from once a year for about one or two weeks during the holiday, after racing season. that's where my parents feel most unbearable,
Ling Yah: They weren't even allowed to see you. Right. I think the entire career, they only watched you race once in person.
Lily Xu Lijia: Exactly. The team is like an army environment. It's all closed to the public and then nobody can visit us or can enter the team building. So yeah, my parents just can't bear sort of losing me from the age of 10.
At that time, the communication on the technology wasn't that good. So we just communicate or keep in touch by letter once a week. It was not until I think for the first half a year, when I travel with the sailing team, I almost cry every day.
That's also the case for my parents, because even though I find sailing much more fun and interesting, and everyday is different and intriguing in each day sailing myself, but without my parents' love and care, just so uncomfortable. And I had to do everything by myself. So washing and making the room, cleaning the room et cetera
Whereas at home, I'm just like a little princess. I don't need to worry about any of the chores or housework. Whereas in a team, I have to do everything. from the age of 10, that's pretty tough.
Ling Yah: Yeah. And I think they basically controlled everything you did, right. Like what you did, what of training, what kind of boat that you specialized in?
And I think you weren't allowed to disagree or say no, there were consequences for that too?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah. That's what the Chinese environment like for sports team.
I think we were taught to grown up in a way that we have to obey everything. Otherwise we will be punished severely. For example, we will be asked to run for 10 K or being on the water for an extra two hours, like they're sort of training punishment.
So that's where I gradually lost our voice.
We lost our imagination. We just had to bottle up everything set by the coaches or the leaders.
Ling Yah: And then you started at your international career in the 1998 Asian championships in Optimists. And you also joined your first world championship, which I understand was quite significant for you because they gave an unfair ruling and you couldn't challenge it because you can speak English then.
Lily Xu Lijia: I wouldn't say that's unfair. I would just say, because I couldn't speak English. I couldn't demonstrate my situation better.
Like there might be some misunderstanding about my demonstration transferred by my translator because the translator doesn't know anything about sailing.
So she just used the everyday live English to translate our sailing specific terminology or language, which caused some misunderstanding. So that's what inspired me to learn English by myself, because I don't think I can bear any more misunderstanding and the future.
For my sailing career from then on, I not only spend a lot of time learning English for the school, but also I put more attention learning sailing specific English, which benefit a lot for later years.
Ling Yah: And how were you learning English? Was it through English programs or books?
Lily Xu Lijia: I learned English just by myself. And I use a textbook series called new concept English, which is quite a classical British English textbook. And so every day, I spend probably at least two to three hours after my training or before my training to learn English. And sometimes, maybe a little bit more if we have a rest day or we couldn't sell due to the fall weather.
And the way I study is from listening, reading and reciting.
So many people asked me, Lily, how you start, how you picked up English. And I say, really, if you keep learning and then you will taste the sweetness. After some time, maybe at first you need to have the self discipline to really be willing to give up everything.
I was chatting, playing games, watching television or watching movies, et cetera. But later on, when you taste the sweetness of being able to understand what the foreigners are talking about, you can read a lot of English books to help your sporting career, then gradually you become automatic that you want to learn.
Keep learning and keep improving.
Ling Yah: And I understand at the age of 12, if you actually narrowly escaped death. When you were out training with your coach off the coast of Wujian. Could you share a bit about what happened that day?
Lily Xu Lijia: I think I've only trained in sailing for less than two years.
During a winter training camp, one day occurred a very strong wing. I remember my coach just said oh, don't worry. It's just a little bit dark due to cloudy weather. But the wind is not that big.
And then after we sail out to sea, we realized, wow, the winds kept increasing and then went crazy. And, and, until at some point we couldn't really control the boat at all.
Later when the coach said to, sailors, ah, let's go back home. Let's sell back to the beach. It was already a little bit too late. So the waves are so high that I can't see other boats that close to me.
What is more, the coach boat capsized due to a big wave Meaning that we lost the last hope. If we face anything in danger, normally, if we're in danger, the coach boat will approach us and then save our lives by jumping on to the coach boat and just abandon the sailboat. But that time when the coaches lost control of themselves, I know I can't see the land.
I just feel it was the first time I was so close to death.
Fortunately none of our equipment had any problems on that very challenging day. After three or four hours, we safely sailed back to shore just before it got completely dark.
Ling Yah: Wow. The waves as I understand it were like 56 feet high. So you couldn't even see to the other side.
Were you not traumatized or think like, wow, I can't go back to sea anymore cause I almost lost my life?
Lily Xu Lijia: I think, conversely, it makes me more determined to be a better sailor. Obviously I couldn't tell the story to my parents because they were worried about me.
But deep inside my heart. It makes me really more determined to improve my sales skills and their mastery, all kinds of conditions of weather.
Ling Yah: At what point did the Olympics become not just a dream, but a real possibility? Because this whole incident at sea happened in 1999. And by 2002, you already had won the world championships two times, you're on the national team, ready to go to apply for Athens.
So at what point you realize that, you know what, I really have a real shot at going for the Olympics.
Lily Xu Lijia: Very first time I was in 2002, when I finished my optimist career by winning almost all the competitions. My eyes were firmly glued to the Athens Games. Which means after a national championship, then I can enter the national team and then do the trials the following year in 2003 in order to get a spot for 2004.
Unfortunately, when I was diagnosed with a tumor on my leg, I had to accept an operation and followed by a whole year's recovery, which made me lose the chance to do the trials. So in a way I had to give up the Athens Olympics due to injuries.
So it was not until four years later for the Beijing Olympics campaign that I started to properly training for my very first Olympic games.
Ling Yah: And I think you had to have to surgery them because the doctors worried that it could spread and you would have to amputate the legs.
And that half year, when you had to recover, did you think of giving up? Because it must've been excruciating, the pain, just learning to reuse your leg muscles.
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah. It was like learning from a little baby. My legs couldn't bend properly. I have to press my leg gradually increasing the band angle.
It never occured to me to give up even faced with such difficulties or challenges or setbacks. I think when we face more challenges, it's actually a golden opportunity to help us become stronger and a better person during that half a year, one year recovering time when I couldn't sail.
It makes me want to sell more and also helped me to realize that I was already truly in love with the sport of sailing. So in the past, probably I can say I like sailing. I enjoy sailing, but yet to say I love sailing.
But then it was in 2002 and 2003 when I couldn't touch the sailboat that made me realize that, well, my life couldn't go on without sailing.
So when I finally am able to go back to the team and train and sell again, I become really grateful for the opportunity to be with my sailboat and also cherish every single training session so that I can. Be a better and, an old Ram sailor for future events
Ling Yah: What was it about sailing that you realized you loved so much and you cannot live without.
Lily Xu Lijia: The freedom and the closeness to nature, I think because probably of my hearing loss as well as some other disadvantages, sailing makes me feel equal to everyone else.
And then also something I'm pretty good at it. So I feel sailing is really giving me the opportunity to show my potential as well as pursuing my dream and then enjoy it at the same time.
Ling Yah: And what was it like those next few years, starting to go back to competitions again? I understand in 2005,you started racing the laser radial races? How were those years like leading up to your first Olympics at Beijing?
Lily Xu Lijia: I first sailed the laser radio in 2005. It was pretty late compared with other foreign sailors. That's after my national games.
And then we all switched from Europe, which was previously the Olympic class. And then sailing the laser radio is quite different compared with Europe. Because I would say Europe was more ladylike, more elegant boat because it requires more techniques as well as the equipment adjustment.
Whereas for laser radio, it's one design, everyone using the same equipment. It's a pure test for your fitness as well as your techniques and tactics.
In a way we always feel we, Asia is not as strong as the Westerners. Like the Chinese always joke that because we have porridges every morning, whereas Westerners have bread and butter, which has much higher calories and then gives more energy to our body.
But talking back yeah, I do find it very, very challenging to improve my fitness. We not only have to put a lot of hours in the gym, but also on a bike in order to improve our, Arabic endurance.
My typical training routine would be something like 2 hours weight training in the morning, 4 to 5 hours on the water. And then 2 to 3 hours on the road bike.
That's training, training all the time. And it was not until after putting in many hours of fitness training that I was able to sell it about fast enough in order to compete against my foreign rivals.
Ling Yah: And I understand in 2006, when you were 19, you decided to abandon your name Lijia and adopt the name lily. Could you share with us that story?
Lily Xu Lijia: When I was in primary school, the English teacher just. Sort of assigned English names to us students. And then Lucy started at that time, probably around age seven or so.
And later on, I just found out Lucy's a quite out of date name, maybe for the older generation, not for my generation.
And then I was looking for a new English name, but obviously my very first email address started with Lucy. And I'm still using that email account. So every so often people were still confused.
With Lucy or Lily, back in 2006, a friend of mine suggested that my Chinese name is Xu Lijia. Xu is my family name. Li is actually in English. Lily.
So she suggested, Oh, why don't you change to Lily, which sounds like a younger name compared with Lucy?
So that's when I started to use Lily instead of Lucy from the year of 2006.
Ling Yah: And in 2008, you went finally to your first Olympics, the Beijing Olympics, and you won a bronze after racing at the Qingdao regatta, what was that whole experience like for you?
Lily Xu Lijia: I think in 2008, due to my first Olympic experience, I was extremely nervous because everything's huge. The crowd, the attention, the camera man.
So different compared with any other event. Not even for the world championship. They are not the same level. I think because I was feeling so much pressure, I couldn't perform myself to start with, but then gradually after some adjustment, I changed my attitude or change to my psychology and enjoyed the games instead of being beaten by all attention or the pressure of the games.
Luckily it was not too late to adjust because I think at the beginning I was very nervous and gradually became more normal and performed myself. Whereas my rivals, they are normal at the beginning and then gradually they become more nervous and then didn't perform well.
So that's how we changed our position.
I was very happy to win that medal even though it was just bronze because everyone is expecting me to win a gold since I was the World Champion 2006, and then I've always been on the podium and leading to the games. but one thing, many people don't realize was my sailing style.
Isn't suitable for the venue of Qingdao where the sailing event was held. So in the end, I was very, very happy about this result and my performance.
Ling Yah: You said your style wasn't suited to that place. Could you elaborate a little bit more on why that was the case?
Lily Xu Lijia: I like light wind very much. in any other venue I can always sell in the first group in lightweight.
Whereas in Qingdao, we have very light wind, but with big waves and strong currents. And somehow I just couldn't have a good speed either in up wind or downward, especially downwind .
My feeling, the 6th sense of steering the boat isn't good enough. So I tend to lose dozens of bows in a downwind leg, which is very costly.
None of the other venues in the world would be like that.
Ling Yah: And how many races did you have to do?
Lily Xu Lijia: Oh for a sailing event normally we have 11 races. So each race lasts about an hour and every day we will do two races. So the sailing competition will last for about a week because we have days off in the middle as well.
But if we miss the racing due to a challenging weather, we will use a day off to continue finishing 11 races. And then for the first 10 races, everyone started to get our racing together, which was called the opening series.
And then after 10 races, the top 10 boats will race in the medal race, which will be double point. It's a double point system. Whereas in the opening series, it's a single point. Meaning that if you've finished the first, so you add one point and second at two points.
Whereas for the medal race, if you win, you will have two points. And second finishing second, you will add four points just to add a little bit more drama for the final race.
Ling Yah: You had so many races over such a long period of time, and you had to bear that pressure of everyone knowing who you were and expecting you to deliver. I imagine that the reason why you could settle in psychologically, emotionally into the race was because everything became normal for you?
Because I interviewed another Olympian and she said, I was in synchronized swimming and we were in the final week of the Olympics.
And initially I was like, oh, so overwhelmed by everything. But then I was training every day and it was like a normal training week and I got so used to it that we could settle into our role. It is always just like any other day.
Was that the same case for you?
Lily Xu Lijia: Think it's easier to say that than to do that.
Yeah, of course I would like to take it easy and then just treat it as a normal training week. But I think realistically, it's not that easy to do.
But later on I discovered sports psychology, which helped me to deal with the pressure much, much better. Because we can do the meditation over and over again in our mind to make ourselves more mentally prepared for the big event.
So I would definitely recommend a sports psychology or psychology, any area of our life. Because even though we can't see it, we can't touch it, but this inner strength is so powerful. It definitely can help us increase our input to another level, or maybe just to perform ourselves on the pressure in any way of life.
Ling Yah: And you were discovering all this while I understand you took a long break from sports straight after the Beijing Olympics because you had this back injury and in the process of learning more about sports psychology, is that how you discovered the book Be Your Own Sailing Coach by your now husband, Jon Emmett?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah. I started to buy a lot of english books after 2008, not only sailing books, but also nutrition ones, psychology as well as fitness training.
I just read a lot of books during my break, after the Beijing Games. And then later on, when I utilized all these knowledge into my own sailing and training, I became a much better athlete in all ways.
So eating more purposefully in a nutritional way in order to fuel my training better and also using psychology training before and after each training session so that I can have a clear aim before the session, during the session and afterwards I can do a better sum-up. Just like a replay, moving my mind.
For fitness training, also the same. That I can train more effectively and efficiently, with some more scientific method. Those knowledge are so powerful. That helps me to reach another level in my sporting career.
Ling Yah: And I wonder what it was about that book, Be Your Own Sailing Coach that struck you so much because you really wanted to get John to be hired to coach the sailors in China and they were not happy about it, right? You really had to fight for it.
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah, I think Jon Emmett's Be Your Own Sailing Coach was just one of the books that I really enjoyed.
And then since I learned he is living in Weymouth where the Olympics will be held for 2012 and then he's an expert in laser radial, which is my Olympic class then, I think it will be really a blessing if the Chinese team could hire him as our coach. but to start with, they're not very into him for various reasons.
And then it was not until later on when the leaders and coaches actually see how much progress I had training together with John that they finally agreed and signed a contract with him, leading to the 2012 Olympics.
Ling Yah: But it was still difficult, right. Because even at the London Olympics, he wasn't even allowed into the athletes village.
So you would communicate to him via text.
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah. because there are limited accreditation cards for each team. My Chinese coach got the first opportunity. So he's allowed to enter the village as well as being on the water with me. But then John. Didn't have the chance to coach me properly.
So what we did was, he texted me and emailed me all the time and gave me suggestions or instructions and then the weather briefing and after racing, we will meet outside the village and then just do some easy aerobics in a gym. That's when we can talk a little bit face to face, but other times we just communicate by text, email. By the electronics.
Ling Yah: I imagine that going into the London Olympics must have been a very different experience from Beijing because John was using such a different method.
And I read in your book, Golden Lily, that he would always say for a year leading up to the London Olympics, that one day you wake up and it's 30th of July.
And that was like constantly in your mind. So you were mentally prepared for that date.
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah, exactly. He started to mention this a long time ago. So, I won't be overwhelmed to like the Beijing Olympics completely out of control by the nervousness, whereas, because he kept emphasizing on the upcoming London Olympics.
He helped me mentally more prepared for that big event of my life. And then just trying to treat it as a normal training week, as we mentioned earlier, I would say without the suggestion or without some psychological training won't be possible.
I'm very glad that I managed to deal with it, easier way so that I can perform under pressure during the London Olympics.
Ling Yah: And he also says a lot about joy, right?
Right before your final race, you told the media that I'm going to give it all for joy with all my heart. And did you feel that joy as you were racing? What was that final race like for you?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah. It was very competitive because all the top four sailors had the opportunity to win a gold medal in the last medal race.
I've went through in my mind for hundreds and thousands of times. So even though I can see a lot of camera man, and a lot of media attention, as well as people messaging me from all over the world, I just treat it as a golden opportunity for me to perform an act to myself. Yeah.
I imagined myself as an elegant actress, so like I gave my best performance to the whole world. And then won't leave any regret for my life.
Ling Yah: And at the first down wing Lake for that race, you actually had to do a penalty turn.
Did that make you panic or were you just, I'm just going to execute it and continue the race.
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah I was first of all, mentally prepared for any accidents because, before the race we tried to meditate what we are going to react if this problem works or that problem occurs. And then when I was whistled off that penalty, I just immediately did the turns to exonerate myself and then focus back into my downwind sailing again.
So I didn't wander about, or I didn't worry much about this penalty. I just want to really concentrate on my own sailing and I'm as prepared mentally rehearsal before just, I want to give my best performance to the world.
Ling Yah: Was there any particular moment at the Olympics that touched you personally?
Lily Xu Lijia: The moment when I finishing in a matter of race. Because for my character, I'm a pretty quiet girl. I don't shout or I don't talk loudly. But after I finish I couldn't help screaming loud enough to let the whole broadcasting team hear. And even the audience can hear my shouting on the sea.
So it's just a very natural expression of my mood. Feeling wow, I finally realized my dream and then giving my best performance to the whole world, and making the Chinese sailing into history, et cetera,
Ling Yah: ecause you were China's second ever Olympic goal in the sailing. So that was huge for yourself and also for the country.
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah as we mentioned earlier, like sailing in China, isn't very popular and then it was not until 2008 when sailing was held in the Qingdao of Shandong province that our sport got some extra attention because there's was how to in another city other than Beijing. Bei Jing Yuan, my teammate won the windsurfing gold medal .
And then four years later, when I carried on to win another gold, my people not only got to know about sailing, but they wanted to pick up and to learn sailing themselves. So that's when more and more Chinese go into the sailing clubs and then learn properly about how to sell.
For those four years, a lot of marinas were built and sailing clubs were developed. So the Chinese had more opportunity to learn selling as well. Because for my country, my nation, we have a long coastline. We really want to make the most of it.
Ling Yah: And you were also China's flag bearer for the closing ceremony.
Was this something that I think you discovered on the date itself?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah. I was still in Weymouth on the closing ceremony day. And then in the early morning, I got a phone call saying that Lily, please get on to the car and then head to London, because there was a three hours car journey between Weymouth and London.
And then my team leader said to me, are you being selected as a flag bearer, but please don't tell anybody. I was just all oh, okay. Really? I can't believe it.
But anyway, later on, when I went into the actual the proper athletes village Olympic village in London that I started to feel, wow. That's how Olympics should feel like, because in Weymouth, just the sailors and sailing teams. Whereas in London, you can meet all different people from different sports, different country.
Yeah. And you got a 24 hour dining room, huge dining room. I remember on the actual closing ceremony day, there were another six sailors selected as a flat bearer, which made us sailors feel pretty proud of our sport. Also my father joked to me that, I had no problem to sleep on the day when you win a medal, but really had the insomnia when I learned that you had flat bearer because for in China, we have something like 50 gold medalist in London Olympics. Whereas there's only one flag bearer. The whole nation learned about my name. Even my father felt so proud of that special moment.
Ling Yah: And what was it like suddenly being the center of all this media attention?
Lily Xu Lijia: It was pretty overwhelming, but I just treat the opportunity as a golden one to promote sailing because, instead of thinking about myself, I think about the sport, because I want more Chinese people to feel the joy of sailing. So with those extra attention from the media, I always kept talking about sailing instead of just talking about me and my own story.
Ling Yah: And was it hard for you to announce that you were retiring from the sport soon after the London Olympics?
Lily Xu Lijia: So I carried on for another year for the national games, which was held at the end of 2013. And then I decided to fly to the UK for my study, as well as learning some other sailing, history in a maritime rich history country.
personally, I would like to carry on with my sporting career, but just the fact that I had too many injuries, which stopped me from training intensively. and then after One or two years in UK, just fully focused on my study and then a bit easier on my fitness training.
I still do train everyday, but much, much lighter load. And then in the summer of 2015, I felt, Oh, My body is pain-free. Maybe I can do another campaign. So that's when I started to do my third Olympics.
Ling Yah: And you have described your third Olympics, the Rio Olympics in 2016, as your most enjoyable as well.
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah, from Beijing. I was most nervous to London. I started to master or balancing the pressure in a more mature way. and then to the third Olympics, I just really really want to grasp and then enjoy every second of it because it's only for once every four years opportunity. And then maybe my sporting career will end at a certain age because we can't really compete as other career for the rest of our lives.
Though I agree often introduce to the public that sailing is a lifelong sport, but maybe for the competitive one, it's not as easy as other career, but I would still like to say, even though I didn't manage to do it, to compete in sailing or doing some professional sailing in my forties or fifties as other foreign sailors do.
But I would still say to the public that sailing is really a great sport that you can enjoy For your whole life. You may even be able to race together with an world champion or an Olympic champion, because we will go to some events that the public's can do as well. I think for some other sports, it's almost impossible for the amateur sailors or for the publics to race against world level sailors.
Ling Yah: So is it right to say you're never too old to pick up sailing?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yes. Exactly.
Ling Yah: And after Rio, did you have the intention to go for your fourth Olympics?
Lily Xu Lijia: I was super determined to do the Tokyo Olympics, especially after Rio. Even though I didn't get a good result, but just enjoy it so much.
I want to recover for my injuries and then trying to do another one. But unfortunately, even after two operations on my shoulder, I still had pain and couldn't train intensively, which makes me feel a bit sad and fatigue. But then also because of this I think when the God shut one door, it may open up another window.
So I try to look for a second option other than sailing and compete myself. And then I ended up doing a sports media now.
Ling Yah: Before you entered media, I think you were considering other things as well like translating, coaching, being a team leader. How do you go through all that and land on media?
Lily Xu Lijia: When I was in the team, I always started to imagine what my future career will be like if I couldn't sail anymore one day in the future.
All these job title pops up my mind because that's something I'm capable of doing. But then later on, I think media fits my dream better.
Especially after I won gold, I have my own IP. I can keep influencing to the next generation to the public and then continue my influential power to influence people into the sport of sailing and use my knowledge to do sailing reports for the Chinese as well as passing on the knowledge to the next generation.
By doing media, I can reach to more people for my dream. Whereas if I just work in a team or working in a corporation, we'll only be able to influence people around me or in that organization. Whereas doing media, I can definitely reach to more population and then share the idea of happy sailing.
Ling Yah: And was it difficult for you to enter into this new area or this new Korea? Because you used to be the one being interviewed. Now you are interviewing.
Lily Xu Lijia: Oh, I will say, of course it's very challenging as a newcomer in media. because when I was little, I'm not that talkative because of my hearing.
And I couldn't communicate equally with other people. So that's when I started to become a quiet girl.
After picking up media, meaning I need to talk more actively. And then in a different role in a more proactive role asking people questions. there are challenges, but so far after three years of exploring this new career, I couldn't have enjoyed it more.
yeah, I think I will carry on with this career and then, trying to promote sports for a greater amount of people.
Ling Yah: What have been the most surprising things that you learned while doing this media or unexpected things?
Lily Xu Lijia: one of the things I really enjoy is meeting many new friends, many new people, whether elite sailors or successful, athletes in other sports.
So I not only do sailing reports, but I also interview a world champion Olympic champion champion in other sports in China. Making videos and, yeah, I just so enjoy talking to them and then sharing their story to more people so that, not only the younger generation can be inspired by the optimistic attitude, but also the adults can be lured into a healthy life by doing more exercise.
Ling Yah: And you also have a podcast as well, a monthly one where you feature your friends from all over and talk about their sport.
Lily Xu Lijia: I have a Chinese podcast which update once a wee, by interviewing all the elite athletes in China. And then also I have a monthly updated podcast in English that's mainly interviewing sailors.
And you can listen to it, even if you are not a sailor. No problem. So those are the two podcasts I'm doing. You can find it on Apple or Google podcast or any platform like Spotify or SoundCloud.
Ling Yah: I mean, clearly you have found something that you love doing after being an elite sports athlete.
You've been training your whole life. It's all you know. And then you have to retire. And what do you do with the rest of your life? Is this something that is a common struggle?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah.
They're very common. Everyone has that period of transition or in a sudden we lost the ability to do something we're really good at it. And then into a new society and enjoying something when not good at it at all. So, mentally we need to be prepared or facing that challenge and positively.
and then also trying to keep studying, keep improving and with our, athletes, attitude, I believe we can also excellent in other career other than sport.
Ling Yah: And I think you're part of the renewal program charity that helps athletes to make that transition. Is that correct?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah, I'm involved in a charity program to help athletes transferring better or more smoothly from sporting career to their future career. it involves a series of courses in order to teach us athletes how to better master. In our future career, how to communicate with the society be involved fully instead of feeling overwhelmed for a new environment.
So, yeah, I would like to help more Chinese athletes make a smoother transition for their future career and then, reach their best. in future as well.
Ling Yah: And we are recording this at the end of 2020. Obviously the whole world went through this thing called COVID 19. We still are. How has that impact that your life and your career?
Lily Xu Lijia: First of all, it affected my travel. Because my husband British and then normally I would spend one month in China, one month in the UK, so I can have frequent visit to both sides. Whereas now, due to COVID, if I travel from one country to the other, I will. Lose one month quarantine time, which make my travel much less frequent.
So for this year I spent the first half of the year in the UK and almost the second half in China. And then probably the next time I go back to China will be in June, 2021.
And then for my work, since I've spent such a long time in UK, continuously, that many of my work will have to be done online.
And then once I go back to China, just really busy with the actual offline work. So my life's completely different in both countries. I hope we can passing this pandemic fairly soon. And, wishing the Tokyo Olympics can be held on time
Ling Yah: because you are going to be a media reporter at the Tokyo Olympics, right?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah. I've got the accreditation card from World Sailing to be a sailing specific reporter. and in the sailing event will be held in to aim Enoshima Japan, and hopefully through my media work, more Chinese can learn about the competition of sailing.
Also some Chinese windsurfers may have the ability to win a medal. It's just a matter of what colour.
Ling Yah: And so you're doing all of these things in a podcast, writing articles. You also have a book. Can you share with us a bit more about your book?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah, I have two books. One in Chinese, teaching people how to learn sailing. And then the other one in English is more an autobiography, sharing my life stories and sailing stories. You can, order online on Amazon or ebook.
This English autobiography, I've told stories about my family, my background, my sporting career, both in swimming and sailing as well as my Olympic journey.
So a lot to explore in the book and then I'm sure you'll get more excitement or touching moment in that book.
Ling Yah: Do you think that there's anything that you would have done differently if you could go back to the past?
Lily Xu Lijia: Yeah. One thing pops up my mind immediately is if I can train more scientifically instead of over-training, then I can extend my sailing career a bit longer because rarely, even though however much I enjoy doing media work now, nothing can compare with sailing and compete myself.
So do train more scientifically to improve your core and then avoid over-training.
Ling Yah: What do you believe that most people don't?
Lily Xu Lijia: For my hearing loss, because I only have half of the ability of ordinary people, actually even though in the past when I was little, I complained a lot. Say why the God was so unfair to me that I don't have the similar hearing ability as other people.
But now I actually think the lost a half of my ability helped me to reach the level I'm at now because I'm more focused on my sailing career I'm more focused in studying, whereas my peers probably spend more time, a bit where you see on some other entertainment.
So, from the face value, people will think, ah, it must be so sad to lose half of the hearing ability. But I couldn't have been more grateful of what I'm able to do now.
Ling Yah: is there anything that people listening to this interview can help you with?
Lily Xu Lijia: So if you are talking to me, try to grab my attention. Let me look at you before you speak. Because if you speak behind me on the side, I probably really struggle understand you. Whereas if you grabbed my attention talking directly towards me, I can understand you better together with the lip reading.
Ling Yah: For those who want to be elite athletes, do you have one big piece of advice for them?
Lily Xu Lijia: Read a lot of sports related books, whether that's psychology, fitness, nutrition, or even, other sports people's autobiography will help you deal with your challenge much better.
Ling Yah: Is there any particular book or person that you would recommend?
Lily Xu Lijia: So I would like to recommend a sailor's book. Which is Ben Ainsley's Close to the Wind. He won four gold medal and one silver medal in the five Olympics. he's now campaigning for the America's cup in New Zealand. Auckland.
Ling Yah: And you have often been compared to the China version of Ben Ainsley as well.
Lily Xu Lijia: Oh, yeah, yeah, One of the most memorable sentence I remember in Ben Ainsley's was, any event I go to my rivals only have the opportunity to fight for second, meaning that I'm always the strongest, the best sailor, and then no one can compete with me for gold. They are only having the opportunity to compete for second.
Ling Yah: Well, thank you so much, Lily, for this time. I have really enjoyed talking to you. I normally, end all my interviews with these questions. So the first one is, do you think that you have found your, why?
Lily Xu Lijia: Oh, yes. I feel very lucky to meet my beloved to sell boat not only personally, I enjoyed every second on a boat.
It also helped me realize my dream, my value, and showed my potential. What is more, the current career I'm doing now still related to sailing to sports and related to my dream to promote sailing in China and hopefully, it can become more popular in the future in China.
Ling Yah: And what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
Lily Xu Lijia: I want to leave a legacy of more and more teenagers having the opportunity to learn sailing. So I'm thinking about having a school so more people can learn and pick up sailing. And then even one day I passed away, the legacy can carry on.
Ling Yah: And what do you think are the most important qualities a successful person should have?
Lily Xu Lijia: Be optimistic. And then, whenever you face some challenge, try to open your eyes and find the positive side of it. And then once we go through those setbacks, we realize how much we're grown, how much we improved.
Ling Yah: And where can people go to connect with you and find out what you're doing and support your work?
Lily Xu Lijia: For Western social media, you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter just by searching my name, Xu Lijia or LiJia Xu.
And then for, Chinese people, I have Xinlan Weibo or WeChat. So you can also find me, follow me by searching my Chinese name, Xu Li Jia.
Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 28.
The show notes and transcript for this episode can be found at www.sothisismywhy.com/28
YOu want to listen to previous episodes featuring Olympians, you can head over to episode 17 with Louisa Gurski, a two time British sprints kayaker and episode 12 with Danielle Kettlewell, an Australian synchronized swimmer, and also someone who considers herself an unlikely Olympian.
If you enjoyed this episode, I'd love if you could leave a review on Apple podcasts. I do read every one.
And stay tuned for next Sunday because we'll be meeting one of Malaysia's finest chefs on how he got started on his culinary journey to building a restaurant that ranks as one of Asia's top 50 restaurants.
And how he incorporates local and almost forgotten ingredients into his culinary masterpieces.