Some big skates to fill: What to do when your mom is an Olympian
Nineteen-year-old Yankun Zhao's mother coached Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen. No pressure.
Nineteen-year-old Yankun Zhao has some big skates to fill.
The teenage speed skater is one of Canada's up-and-coming stars in the sport — earlier this year, he smashed his personal record, captured gold in the 1000m, and became a Canadian Junior Long Track champion.
That's a lot of pressure for a young athlete. Thankfully, he doesn't have to look very far for inspiration.
That's because Yankun's mom is Xiuli Wang. Not only is she a world-famous speed skating coach — she coached Cindy Klassen and Clara Hughes — she was also a member of China's Olympic speed skating team in 1984 and 1992.
"I remember seeing a documentary about her, as an athlete, and I was like: wow, she's so cool. I need to be this cool too," said Zhao, who tries his best to be inspired, not intimidated, by his mother's example.
"There's a great amount of inspiration from my Mom. To continue her legacy is something I really want to do."
Gaining (and losing) momentum
Zhao was just two years old when he first put on a pair of skates. He started training competitively at four, and throughout his teens he seemed destined for the podium and the world stage.
But in 2020, that momentum ground to a halt. In those anxious and isolating pandemic months, Zhao noticed something that would turn their family upside down.
"I noticed my dad started coughing a bunch," said Zhao, "he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer."
After the diagnosis, Zhao stopped everything: he quit training, left school, and spent as much time with his family as possible. In June of 2021, Zhao's father passed away. Both mother and son felt shattered by the unexpected loss.
Not long after Zhao resumed his training, he fell on the ice and sustained a concussion. After that, he failed to make the 2022 national junior team. With his confidence at an all-time low, he was close to quitting the sport for good.
Back to the top of his game
Wang could see that her son was struggling, and knew he was unhappy with his results on the ice. So she made sure he knew just how proud she was of him.
"I felt lost during that time, but there was always my Mom by my side," said Zhao.
Watching the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing also boosted his motivation.
Slowly but surely, Zhao has worked his way back onto the podium. Just a few months ago, he competed in his first international event: representing Canada at the World Juniors in Germany.
In their interview with Now or Never, the pair took a moment to express how much they mean to each other.
"Thanks a lot, Mom, you've been there for me this entire time. There's no way for me to repay you. I'll just do my best in speed skating and make you proud," said Zhao.
"I'm always going to be there: past, now, and in the future," replied Wang.
"Whenever you need it, I will be there for you."