If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Chinese figure skater Yao Bin wasn’t one to give up after just one defeat. Or several, for that matter. Yao grew up in a Chinese factory town dubbed the “Ice City” because the average winter temperature was a frigid -5 degrees Fahrenheit. In 1979, the Chinese government decided that the People’s Republic would make a foray into pairs figure skating. Officials tapped 21-year-old Yao to partner with 12-year-old Luan Bo as the nation’s first pairs team.

The duo had to learn the difficult and often dangerous sport without benefit of experienced coaches or mentors, using only still photos to see how routines were supposed to look. Yao dropped his young partner so many times she was forced to practice wearing a helmet and body pads.

The novice skaters entered the world skating arena just four months later, journeying to Germany to compete in the 1980 World Championships. Neither had ever been out of China, yet they traveled alone because there was no budget for coaches to accompany them.

They finished dead last, the audience laughing at their stumbling performance. Undaunted, the pair competed in the World Championships in 1981 and 1982, as well as the 1984 Olympics. Each time, they finished last.

After such public humiliation, most people would have slipped quietly out of the spotlight. Not Yao. He used the defeats to feed his ambition to make China a respected force in pairs figure skating.

In 2004, more than 20 years after his inauspicious skating debut, he coached China’s pairs teams to second, third, and fifth-place finishes. And in the February 2006 Olympic games, Yao’s team gave the favored Russians a run for the money—finishing second, third, and fourth and bringing home the silver and bronze medals.

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