Lausanne, Switzerland


An Kai remembers the moment he first walked into the towering Bird’s Nest stadium during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. An was just 12 at the time, and the local roller skating team he competed for in his home town of Jinan, Shandong province, in eastern China, had organized a trip to watch the opening ceremony.

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An Kai (CHN) at the ISU Four Continents Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2020©International Skating Union (ISU)

“I was so excited,” An said. “I just wanted to grow up really fast so I could participate and fight for a medal at Olympics. Before I’d actually been there and experienced the event for myself, the Olympics always seemed too far away, too detached from my life. I was so young, I didn’t really realize what it meant to compete at Olympics. But Beijing 2008 changed all that.”

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An Kai (CHN) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating Relay (JPN) 2020©International Skating Union (ISU)

Now, An is one of the rising stars of Chinese Short Track Speed Skating: he was part of the Men’s 5000m Relay team who won gold at the 2019/20 ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating event in Nagoya, and picked up 1500m silver in Montreal and 1500m bronze in Shanghai to end the season third in the 1500m ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating rankings. Now he is on course to compete in a Beijing Olympics of his own. The 2022 Winter Games are looming, barely two years away and, having established himself as a consistent medal contender, he is already carving out a name for himself.

But for most of his childhood, An always imagined himself competing at a summer Games. After all, he began focusing full-time on Short Track Speed Skating only at the relatively late age of 15.

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An Kai (CHN) at the SU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (JPN) 2020©International Skating Union (ISU)

“At first I was a roller Skater,” he said. “But in 2009, they built a new ice rink in Qingdao City, which is near my home town, and over the next couple of years I spoke to my father about switching to Short Track because I liked it more. It’s faster, more thrilling, and there’s a lot more techniques to it, such as the overtaking. By 2011, I had officially switched to Short Track.”

An explained that the building of the Qingdao ice rink represented part of a wider movement within Chinese winter sport. Whereas previously, the majority of Chinese skaters came from the north of the country, typically provinces such as Heilongjiang, Jilin, Shenyang, and Changchun, the new so-called ‘North Ice South Expansion strategy’ has helped Short Track Speed Skating to expand into southern areas such as Hunan, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Hainan. Its growing popularity has been aided by the international success of athletes such as Wu Dajing and Fan Kexin.

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Fan Kexin (CHN) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (CHN) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)

“The sport has changed a lot since I started,” An said. “Ice rinks have been built in many southern provinces, schools have employed specialist winter sports coaches, and launched special courses in the sport. Now in national selection competitions, you see many skaters from southern regions which didn’t used to be the case, and having athletes like Wu Dajing and Fan Kexin has really helped make more people aware of this sport, and wanting to join in.”

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Wu Daijing (CHN) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)

Wu’s remarkable performances in winning 500m gold at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, and breaking the world record nine months later in Salt Lake City, have played a particularly important role in raising Short Track Speed Skating’s profile across China. An aims to emulate Wu at Beijing 2022, but doing so will require breaking the Republic of Korea’s legendary strength in the 1000m and 1500m.

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An Kai (CHN) at the ISU Four Continents Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2020©International Skating Union (ISU)

“There’s still two years until the Olympics and we’re taking it step by step, always trying to make new adjustments to improve,” An said. “China used to only be good at 500m, but that’s starting to change. This season you can see more and more Chinese skaters in the finals of the longer events.”

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Wang Meng (CHN) at the Olympic Winter Games 2010©Getty Images

An points out that one of the reasons for this is the Chinese team’s new head coach, the legendary Short Track Speed Skater Wang Meng, a four-time Olympic champion. At last summer’s pre-season training camp, Wang placed a greater emphasis on building the team’s physical strength and endurance for the longer distances.

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Han Tianyu (CHN), Lee June Seo (KOR) and An Kai (CHN) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (CHN) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)

“I feelt so much more powerful this season,” An said. “Because of all the hard work I put in, the bronze medal I won in Shanghai actually meant so much more to me than the silver in Montreal. We normally have four weeks’ break between the second and third World Cup stops, but this season we had a really short break, just two weeks. And after Nagoya, I already felt really tired and I came to Shanghai not in peak condition. So to still make the final and win a medal was really rewarding. I felt all the work was not in vain.”

Away from competitions and the intensity of training camps, An has a variety of hobbies which fill his downtime, ranging from his pet turtle Zhua Zhua, to his passion for Lego and building and flying model planes.

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An Kai (CHN), Hwang Dae Heon (KOR) and Charles Hamelin (CAN) at the ISU Four Continents Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2020©International Skating Union (ISU)

But it’s the need for speed which captivates him most of all, and he admits to a secret longing to indulge his passion for motorbike racing. “If I hadn’t become a Skater, I would have liked to have competed in professional motorcycle racing,” he said.

“It’s quite similar to Short Track in some ways – it’s very fast, exciting, and overtaking requires a lot of skill. I do ride motorbikes but not regularly because, as an athlete, I have to put safety first, but when I retire I think I’ll buy a proper bike and try to do some training on the track. I’d love to experience what it’s actually like to be professional racer.”

But before that, An’s attention is firmly set on Beijing 2022, and chasing that golden dream. “I remember 2008 and feeling the pride of seeing the Chinese athletes standing on the podium with their medals,” he said.

“Ever since then, I’ve dreamt of one day standing on the Olympic podium myself, receiving a medal for China. If I can achieve that, I’ll feel that my entire career was worth something.”