When Xu Shixiao went to work as usual in a furniture company in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, five years ago, she was surprised to get a call from her former coach, inquiring about her willingness to return to canoeing and compete in the Tokyo Olympic Games. Xu quickly made her decision.
"I quit my job as a human resources manager, informed my family and went back to training three days later. There was not much time left for me to prepare for the Olympics," Xu recalls.
On Aug 7, Xu and her partner, Sun Mengya, won gold in the first women's canoe double 500m event at the Tokyo Games. It was also the first Olympic gold medal for China in the event.
Yet Xu's journey to the Olympics was bumpy－she faced lots of difficulties, such as her physical condition after years of retirement and her parents' opposition because they thought it was time for her to get married.
"It was really a hard decision for me to go back to being an athlete after four years of retirement," says Xu.
"I didn't want to regret not competing for a gold medal. I desired to be a champion. I had nothing to lose even if I failed."
To catch the opportunity to go back to canoeing on the international level, Xu started her training－"as cruel as hell". She began her daily exercises early morning and ended at 10:30 pm.
Every day, she would set several detailed goals for her training, such as how high the heart rate should be when paddling a canoe and how long it should take her for 500-meter paddling.
"Only when I reached all my daily goals, I would go ashore," Xu says.
It was a hot July in 2017 in Nanchang, where temperatures can reach 40 C in summer. Xu exposed herself to the scorching sun for hours every day, kneeling on her canoe. Her skin was sunburned. Blisters formed, crusted over, healed and broke out again. But her daily regimen was hardly affected.
"At the beginning, it really hurt. When the pain reached a peak, I couldn't feel my arms and finally became numb," she adds.
The more than two months of grueling training finally paid off. Xu won two gold medals at the 13th National Games in two women's canoe events, which meant she would be part of the national team to compete in the Canoe Sprint World Championships by the International Canoe Federation－for qualification to the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Xu's coach, Peng Hao, says Xu is an excellent athlete.
"She made all efforts to reach the goal and never gave up. She has a strong heart to face high pressure," says Peng.
Xu was born in a small county in a mountainous area in Jiangxi. Her mother farmed at home while her father worked in a factory. She started to help her mother do farm work and housework when she was a little girl.
Before becoming a paddler, Xu couldn't even swim since her hometown is surrounded by mountains.
In 2005, the 13-year-old, who was much taller than her peers, attracted the attention of a rowing coach who came to look for potential paddlers in her school.
Xu agreed to train at a rowing center because she thought rowing a boat was fun.
Unlike rowing in which the athlete sits on a boat and rows on two sides, canoeing requires paddlers to kneel on one leg and paddle on a single side. To stay balanced is quite difficult.
"Every day my canoe turned over dozens of times. I drank lots of water in rivers," recalls Xu of her first canoeing training.
Xu kept training for a year and she made the final of a national race for teenage athletes out of a dozen paddlers at the center. The training involved to get this far bordered on torture.
In 2013, the news that women's canoeing was still not an Olympic event dealt her a heavy blow. No Games, no competitions. Xu's coach suggested her to either change to another sport or to retire.
It was impossible for her to change the sport at age 21. Xu gave up her career and found her first job as a saleswoman in a furniture company. The next year, she was promoted as a human resources manager.
"I never thought that one day I could go back to the sport. Now that I have started again, I will do my best," says Xu.
She adds that her former boss even kept her position for several months in case she returned.
In 2018, she won the 500m women's single event at the Canoe Slalom World Cup in Hungary. In 2019, she partnered with Sun, then 18, to get their ticket for the Tokyo Olympics by winning gold at the ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships.
Compared with athletes who are in their early 20s, Xu's physical recovery is slower. But the career expectancy for athletes has got longer.
"Age is not a problem anymore for an athlete in the era of technology," says Xu.
The Olympic medalist will participate in competitions at home and abroad this year. She is also looking forward to taking part in the Paris Olympics in 2024.