Chinese teenager who trains through the pain takes skipping rope team to five world championship records

Alice Yan

Cen Xiaolin knows that small steps can become giant leaps – as a member of the Chinese team at the World Jump Rope Championship held in Oslo last month, he smashed five records.

The 17-year-old, one of four children from a family of migrant workers in the southern province of Guangdong, was acclaimed as the “world’s most powerful thigh” for skipping 1,141 times in three minutes, a rate of 6.33 jumps a second.

His journey began in 2012, when he was a pupil at Qixing primary school in the Huadu district of Guangzhou and the local education authority decided to promote skipping.

But the success for Xiaolin and his teammates have enjoyed – they have won gold medals in domestic and international competitions – did not come easy.

Not only does he spend two to four hours training each day, the majority of pupils at his school either came from local farming families or, like Xiaolin’s were migrants from the countryside.

Lai Xuanzhi (left) with his coaching team and pupils at a national skipping competition in 2014. Photo: Lai Xuanzhi

Lai Xuanzhi, the school’s skipping coach, said the team’s success had been a victory against the odds for a school “on the edge of the world”.

“When I first arrived at the school in 2010, I was shocked by the poor condition of it,” Lai said. “Grass grew high in the playground and morale among the students was low.

“There were 150 students and teachers. The students felt inferior in their hearts, and when they saw teachers coming, they’d bow their heads or try to avoid them,” he said.

Lai was the first full-time PE teacher in the school’s 55-year history, and was the first teacher with university degree, having majored in basketball at Wuhan Sports University.

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The school’s environment was not helpful for pupils’ psychological and physical development, principal Zhang Youlian told the state broadcaster CCTV in July.

“They lacked honours or awards since they seemed not to succeed in anything,” she said. “So, we hired a professional PE teacher in 2010, hoping to bring some changes.”

At first, Lai taught students football, basketball and athletics, but shortages of staff, equipment and money proved too much to overcome.

But when Huadu district education authority told schools to promote skipping, Lai initially felt it was not for him – he took the teachers’ designated test three times before passing.

Cen Xiaolin celebrates after a record-breaking 548 jumps for a single foot in three minutes in 2015. Photo: Lai Xuanzhi

But when he began coaching the children, he became obsessed. “Day and night, I’d be thinking of how to get my students jump faster,” Lai said. “My wife said I let out the words ‘faster, faster’ while I was asleep.”

When the school ran short of money to buy equipment, Lai collected ropes and metal cabling to make skipping ropes.

The teacher said his biggest obstacle was the parents who objected to their children skipping because it ate into their study time.

“I visited each family to persuade the parents to agree,” Lai said. “I remember, one family I went to see 21 times.”

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Of the 2012 skipping squad’s first batch of more than 50 students, only five remained a year later, he said.

But they persevered thanks to their hard work and the team from Qixing primary – Xiaolin among them – won many awards at a national skipping contest held in southeastern Anhui province in 2014.

The following year, Qixing students were chosen to represent their country at a competition in the United Arab Emirates.

For many, the flight to Dubai was their first time on a plane and their first time abroad.

Lai said the success of his pupils in those matches was the result of hard work that involved at least two hours of training for competition every day.

Pupils from Qixing school and their coaching staff in Dubai. Photo: Lai Xuanzhi

“Rural kids can take the hardship,” he said. “Out of 365 days a year, they’ll be training for 360.”

Sporting success did not come at the expense of academic effort, Lai said.

His skipping team all got high rankings for classwork and graduated to middle schools, where their tuition and living costs are partially subsidised by the authorities because of their sporting achievements.

For Xiaolin, who is now studying at Huadong Middle School, skipping has opened up another world while many of his peers appear destined for a life of factory or agricultural work and early marriage.

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“I’ve been to Dubai, Malaysia, Sweden and Norway [to compete]. I never thought I could represent China taking part in international competitions,” he said.

He continued that while his academic grades were modest, he dreams of becoming a teacher and inspiring a new generation to take up skipping.

For now, though, his focus is on his next international competition in Canada.

“I love my life,” he added. “Although I need to train hard for two to four hours a day, skipping has brought me much more joy than pain.”

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