Former skating champion helps students realize their full potential
Zhang Jie coaches the Special Olympics short-track speedskating team she founded in Qitaihe, Heilongjiang province. (Photo by Wang Kai / Xinhua)
Every time a team member calls her "Mother Coach", Zhang Jie gets a warm feeling inside.
"They are like my own children - they are my pride and joy," Zhang said.
The team consists of 26 members who have disorders including Down syndrome, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mental disturbance, intellectual disability or hearing disturbance.
They are like my own children — they are my pride and joy
Zhang Jie, founder of a Special Olympics short-track speedskating team in Qitaihe
During the 11th Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria in March, three members of the team won a total of four gold medals and two silver medals.
This achievement came just two and a half years after Zhang founded a Special Olympics short-track speed-skating team in Qitaihe in October 2014, which she decided to coach on a voluntary basis.
Zhang, 46, was born in Qitaihe, Northeast China's Heilongjiang province, and began learning how to skate at age 8.
She went on to win a gold medal in the women's 3,000-meter short-track speedskating relay at the 1993 World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Beijing.
"I always wanted to remain involved in skating and my dream was to become a coach after retiring," Zhang said.
To become a qualified coach, she chose to study at home and abroad after her retirement in 1995.
After obtaining a bachelor's degree from Heilongjiang University, Zhang continued studying nutrition and exercise rehabilitation in Japan, where she was awarded several professional certificates.
While studying exercise rehabilitation of the disabled, she began to explore the idea of becoming a Special Olympics coach, and in 2014 was summoned back to her hometown.
"I still remember the smile on the face of the principal when I went to select athletes at Qitaihe Special Education School," Zhang said.
"He told me that he and the students' parents would do anything to help the students have the opportunity to enjoy sports in the same way as children without disabilities. His words were inspirational."
Zhang (fifth from left) and 13 members of the Special Olympics short-track speedskating team in Qitaihe. (Photo by Wang Kai / Xinhua)
However, when the 26 team members lined up in front of her for the first time, Zhang realized the task she was faced with was going to be far more difficult than she had imagined.
Only five of the children, who all had hearing disabilities, were able to run.
Due to the poor receptivity and physical condition of the team, Zhang had to repeat every action countless times.
"During the process, I found that dedication, patience and love are much more important than sports technologies," Zhang said.
To get closer to the children, Zhang gave each of them a nickname. Sometimes in the training, she dressed up as different animals and told stories to the children.
"I wanted to show them that I am their coach, but also their friend," Zhang said.
"However, I felt guilty about not spending enough time with my daughter, especially during her senior high school entrance examination."
But her efforts paid off.
"All of the children made great progress, which surprised many of their parents," Zhang said. "The children's coordination improved and more important, they learned the importance of teamwork."
Over the past two and a half years, Zhang has taken a keen interest in the children's overall development, often visiting their homes and recording every detail about their progress.
"Seeing them grow as people has meant the most to me," she said.
"I helped them develop physically and mentally through skating, but I hope it also enabled them to realize their potential and build self-worth," Zhang said.
"We have recruited a new group of team members now and I believe sports can help their mental and physical development," she said.
"I hope to help children in need of exercise rehabilitation all around the country."
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