OLYMPICS/Gymnast Lee Chih-kai aiming to turn perfection into invincibility

08/03/2021 04:28 PM
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Gymnast Lee Chih-kai performs his routine in the men
Gymnast Lee Chih-kai performs his routine in the men's pommel horse final. CNA photo Aug. 1, 2021

Taipei, Aug. 3 (CNA) For Taiwanese gymnast Lee Chih-kai (李智凱), his flawless performance of the challenging "Thomas Flair" on pommel horse at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics only kindled his ambition to further perfect the routine into invincibility.

The 25-year-old won a silver medal in the pommel horse on Aug. 1, the first Olympic medal ever won by a Taiwanese athlete in gymnastics.

He nailed his 45-second routine, centered around the move named after late American gymnast Kurt Thomas, in which he skillfully maneuvered around the pommel horse on alternate hands while swinging his split legs in a continuous circular motion.

Yet the score it earned -- 15.400 -- was not good enough to prevent Britain's Max Whitlock from winning his second consecutive Olympic pommel horse gold medal with a 15.583.

Lee's 8.700 for execution was the best of any gymnast, even better than Whitlock's 8.583, but his 6.7 for difficulty was 0.3 points lower than Whitlock's 7.0 -- essentially the margin of defeat and the fuel that is powering Lee as he looks ahead.

"I did my best. I have no regrets," Lee said after his performance, determined to come back better.

"Right now, I'm the 3.0 version of Lee Chih-kai, and I'll push to evolve further by beating Whitlock."

When he defeats the veteran champion, it will be the birth of "Lee Chih-kai 4.0," he said, expressing his wish to achieve a "Thomas Flair" maneuver the world has never seen.

From left: Lee Chih-Kai, Max Whitlock and Kazuma Kaya of Japan. CNA photo Aug. 1, 2021
From left: Lee Chih-Kai, Max Whitlock and Kazuma Kaya of Japan. CNA photo Aug. 1, 2021

As with any gymnast, Lee's road to the Olympics has been rife with injuries, muscle pulls and general aches, evidenced by the tape covering several parts of his body.

There have also been tears, documented in an award-winning 2005 documentary, "Jump! Boy," featuring seven young gymnasts training in Yilan County, including Lee.

Recalling his training as a gymnast for more than a decade, Lee described the grind of repeating the same routines every day as "boring and demanding."

But it is his ability to endure that routine that he feels has set him apart.

"I'm not talented. I just grind more than others," Lee said.

Gymnast Lee Chih-kai (center) and his coach Lin Yu-hsin (left). Photo courtesy of the Sports Administration
Gymnast Lee Chih-kai (center) and his coach Lin Yu-hsin (left). Photo courtesy of the Sports Administration

Born in 1996 in Yilan, Lee started gymnastics at the age of 6, coached by Lin Yu-hsin (林育信), who is the coach of Taiwan's gymnastics team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Lee joined the gymnastics team of Gongzheng Elementary School in Luodong Township when he started there as a first grader.

At first training was not painful, he recalled, attributing his fondness for the sport to "a sense of achievement" he felt when a new movement drew warm applause.

As the training got harder and more serious, however, physical and mental pain set in. He and his teammates occasionally shed tears on a big pillar in front of the gym at the school, Lee said, recalling that he would hug that pillar crying whenever his mother sent him to train.

He would actually pray that his mother take him home because she could not bear to see her son in pain, but that never happened, he said.

Gymnast Lee Chih-kai (front left) and other Taiwanese athletes are met with fans
Gymnast Lee Chih-kai (front left) and other Taiwanese athletes are met with fans' greeting at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport upon their return from Japan. CNA photo Aug. 3, 2021

Despite thinking of quitting the sport several times because of the pain, harsh training regimen, and the sense of frustration that came after failing to execute a routine well, he pressed on.

Lee was 20 years old when he competed in his first Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. There, he fell from the pommel horse, and at that moment "my brain went blank, except for the thought of wondering why my life was so painful," he said.

That mishap has shadowed him ever since, though diminishing with time as his results have gotten better.

Lee Chih-kai finishes his gold medal-winning routine at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. CNA file photo
Lee Chih-kai finishes his gold medal-winning routine at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. CNA file photo

In 2018 he completed a "Thomas Flair" routine to win gold at that year's Asian Games in Jakarta, and he also bagged a gold in the pommel horse at the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei and the 2019 Universiade in Napoli.

From the 1.0 version of Lee Chih-kai in Rio and 2.0 in Napoli to 3.0 in Tokyo, the gymnast has steadily improved, and the earning of an Olympic medal has apparently done nothing to deter him from continuing on that path.

(By Elizabeth Hsu)

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