After clinching gold at the Asia-Oceania Olympic boxing qualifiers last year, the Chinese boxer, who will make her Olympic debut in 2021, is not only pursuing a personal dream but fulfilling a promise to her coach.
CHANG Yuan was training in the southern People's Republic of China’s Hainan Island when she spoke to Tokyo 2020 in March. Her long hair rested gently on her shoulder. Her eyes curved into a crescent moon-like shape when she laughs. It is a far cry to her image at the boxing ring, where her eyes are aggressive and her punches swift.
In March last year, after qualifying for Tokyo 2020 at the Asia-Oceania Olympic boxing qualifier in Amman, Chang went on to beat fourth seed NAMIKI Tsukimi 3-2 in the final, claiming the women's flyweight crown.
It was not an easy win. Namiki, known for her fast feet and fighting on the inside, took round one 3-2 and won the second round with four 10-8s. Chang did not let it go. She went all out in the last round with ferocious close-up punches. After the last three minutes, the two took off their gloves and headgears while waiting for the result. The moment she heard the word “blue”, Chang shook the referee’s hand and jumped in ecstasy.
“Because it was my fifth match at the qualifier, I was exhausted. But I managed to reach a level which was beyond my capability. Though the first two rounds did not go well, I am satisfied with my performance there,” Chang recalled.
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Growing as a boxer
Prior to the final, Chang had actually secured her ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Games during the quarter-final, which relieved her of the stress. However, the intensity and the turnabout at the final match left a big impact on her. In her own words, that experience led to her “biggest growth”.
Chang grew up in martial arts and followed her dad and grandfather in practising martial arts from a very young age. Later on she pursued taekwondo however in 2009, then 12-year-old Chang saw the training of the women’s boxing team from her hometown — Henan province. Amazed by the dynamic movements of the boxers during training, she convinced her coach to allow her practise boxing instead.
It is a decision that she feels grateful for.
“Since I started doing sports, I have been dreaming of becoming an Olympian. But I don’t think I would have the chance if I still practised taekwondo today. Women’s boxing did not make its Olympic debut until London 2012 and there were not many female boxers back then. So it was relatively easier for us to achieve a result than male boxers,” she explained.
Her first big win came at 2014 Youth Olympic Games held in Nanjing. She won the title in the Women's Fly (48-51kg), becoming the first Chinese female boxer to win a gold medal at Youth Olympic Games. Four years later, she won in the same class at the 2018 Asian Games.
2014 Getty Images
Despite accumulating achievements and experience, there was one thing she needed to overcome.
“I could become very moody sometimes. People can easily tell whether I am happy or not from my face. Even a trivial thing could dramatically change my mood,” she said.
Then there were the ups and downs at the Amman qualifier. She secured the qualification easily, defeated India's iconic six-time world champion Mary Kom in the semi-final, but encountered disappointing setbacks at the first two rounds in the final. The experience enlightened her.
“When I resumed my daily training after the qualifier, I felt as if I became matured all of a sudden, as if I were a totally different person,” she said. “At the last match at the qualifier, if I could not adjust my mindset in time, I could have lost.”
Seize gold for her coach
Chang’s first experience at the Olympic Games was in Rio 2016 when she travelled with the team as a sparring partner. But this summer she will finally make her Olympic debut. Whenever the media asks how confident she is in winning gold, she would say that she is very confident. That's because behind her is a whole support team whom she trusts deeply.
At the centre of the team is her coach ZHANG Xiyan.
Deemed as China’s “queen of the ring”, Zhang is a WBA, WIBC and WIBA titles holder. When women’s boxing was finally included in the London 2012 Olympic programme, both Chinese boxing fans and Zhang herself expected that she could attend the Games. But she missed the event’s debut, because back then only amateurs were permitted to participate in the Olympic Games.
Disappointed, Zhang retired in 2011.
“I have confidence in her. If she could compete at the Games, she would definitely be the champion, even champions for subsequent editions. I believe in her competence,” said Chang.
After having coached Chang for almost a decade, Zhang has become Chang’s mental support, and it's her devotion to coaching that keeps motivating Chang.
“Sometimes my heart even aches seeing her ceaseless efforts and perseverance. She seldom spends time with her family since her marriage and only meets her husband once or twice a year. She devotes most of her time to my training,” said Chang, who was on the verge of tears.
As Zhang’s apprentice, Chang sees her participation into the Olympic Games more than a personal ambition—it is also an extension of Zhang’s dream.
The two hugged and cried after the final in Amman.
“We could not stop crying. It was like [as if] I had finished the Olympic match. She might be thinking ‘I can finally go to the Games, even though in a different role. I can stand in the Olympic venue’, while I was thinking ‘I could finally bring you to the Olympic Games’,” Chang said.
Competing at the Olympic Games is the best comfort.
During the past decade, I bled, cried, felt misunderstood. Only by standing on the stage of Olympic Games would I feel that all my efforts had been worth it.
Keep digging for gold
In 2009, over 100 years after women’s boxing first appeared as a demonstration sport at the 1908 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that the event would be officially included in London 2012. But there were people who remained skeptical of the decision, including Olympic boxing silver medallist Amir Khan. They thought the sport was too fierce for women.
2012 Getty Images
Although it has been years since the recognition of women’s boxing as an Olympic sport, and combat sports have been gaining popularity among women, there is still a stereotype attached to those who practise the sports as profession.
ZHANG Weili, the first ever East Asian champion in UFC history, expressed her opinion towards such labels.
“People think that the girls who practise (combat sports) are violent and beat their husband after marriage,” she said in an interview.
Chang said she understood why people think so.
“In most people’s eye, boxing is man’s sport. But in history, we had the story of Mulan,” she said. “In the eye of the old generation, girls should not participate in such a violent sport. They can learn dancing, singing or any instrument.”
She hopes people can see the true nature of boxing, in spite of its fierce apparel.
“It’s not a violent thing. For me, it’s like a game. A game in which you hit the someone, while dodging the punches from that person. That’s how I see it.”
For those who want to step in the ring, no matter what gender, Chang said persistence is the key.
“Everyone chooses to do something out of interest, which is also the reason why one can carry on. Without interest, one would give up halfway,” she said.
“If you are interested in something, you don’t give up halfway. It’s like digging for gold. You almost would have found the gold, but you stop digging. You gave up.”