Two things stand out if you scroll through Viktor Axelsen’s social media feed during this stay-at-home period: daily workout and Chinese tongue twisters challenge.
The 26-year-old Danish badminton player who just won his first all-England title in March spent most of April at his home in Copenhagen.
He takes the self-isolation time as a chance to strengthen his Mandarin skills. Almost every week, he would sit in front of the camera, gently greet his followers and then carefully navigate the difficult phrases, most of which are challenging even to native speakers.
Axelsen started learning Chinese back in 2014, and according to him, it started as a joke that the acquisition of the language would help him become a better badminton player. As he eventually became serious with his studies, he can now visualise how it has influenced him on and off the court.
“I don’t know how much Mandarin has helped me on the court. The biggest thing for me has been to be able to speak with a lot of different players, especially Chinese players. Know how they do stuff,” he said in the interview. “That makes you to think what you do is the right thing. You can learn something from the Chinese player.”
He also acknowledged that the language opened some doors to sponsors and events.
Off the court, he reaches far and wide in the Chinese world, where badminton is a big sport. At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, after he won the bronze medal against Chinese player LIN Dan, he answered the post-match interview for China Central Television in fluent Mandarin.
That made him a viral hit in China.
He now has over 436,000 followers on Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo. Compared with his Danish name, his fans in China are more familiar with his Chinese name — An Sai Long, a nickname given to him by his Mandarin teacher, which means 'calm competitive dragon'.
While the world no.4 competes with other players through racket on the court, off the court foreign languages enable him to develop friendships with athletes from different countries.
He recently joined an Instagram live chat with Malaysian player Lee Chong Wei. During the chat, the two rivals talked cordially in Chinese about their life during the lockdown, their families’ well-being and cooking at home.
“When you are on the road a lot, you travel a lot, you hear different kind of languages. So I think it’s interesting. It’s something you can learn while you are on road,” said Axelsen, adding that he really likes learning new languages.
Check the video below to listen Axelsen speaks Mandarin. He also shares the story with his Chinese skill coach.