Letting Go

Li Yan

Li Yan is the head coach of China’s national short track speed skating team. She is one of the most decorated coaches in the history of the sport, but her road to success hasn’t always been smooth. She made her first Olympic appearance in 1988. At the time, short track speed skating was a demonstration sport, but the medals were the same. Li earned three medals. At the next Winter Games in 1992, short track speed skating became an official event, and Li competed in the final for the 500 meters, finishing second. The medal was China’s first official medal in short track.

Competing to Coaching

Two years later, Li retired from speed skating and then began her coaching career in 2000 - first in Europe, then in the United States. The highlight of her career in the U.S. was the 2006 Olympics, where she coached America’s star skater, Apolo Ohno, to a gold medal. During her time in the United States, Li and her husband became Christians. That year, Li Yan got a call from China asking her to coach the national team. She accepted, but soon faced challenges: some team members did not respond well to her coaching style. Among them was star skater Wang Meng, the gold medalist from the 2006 Games. Meng felt that Li favored younger skaters over veterans.

“I chose a stubborn way to handle it: to be silent,” Li admits.

Li traveled to the U.S. during a vacation from the team, where her pastor visited to pray for her. “Through prayer I received strength. I could truly let go,” Li says. “After that, I thought, ‘When I return to China, I will change everything about how I interact with people.’ I would initiate communication with the team. When team members needed me, I would be there for them.” As a result of Li’s new approach, the team’s results improved greatly, especially at the Vancouver Olympics, where they won gold in all of the women’s events. Their success continued at the 2014 Games where they earned more medals than any other country. “Looking at our accomplishments, we had performed incredibly well,” Li says. “But at that time, I had an insight: we needed to be humble…I could not do this by myself, since God gave me these abilities.” “I am not a perfect person,” she says. “And because I am not perfect, I need to grow in Jesus Christ and grow in God. [But] I hope that when athletes see me, they will think: our coach is different from the others because she has love.”