From one angle Shaolin Sandor Liu is a happy-go-lucky, loud, larger-than-life figure casually skating himself to European, World and Olympic Short Track Speed Skating glory. But look a little closer and the reality is somewhat different.
“If my coach said jump off the roof I would jump off the roof because if she said that would make me an Olympic champion I would do that,” Shaolin said during a recent interview for the ISU’s #UpAgain Show. “If my coach said you should do 100 laps and I say I think 95 laps would do much better for me that’s already a trust issue and [then] it’s hard to improve as one team, in one boat.”
Shaolin Sandor Liu (HUN) at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
Instantly you understand how this often playful, always smiling figure has clambered to the very top of his sport, alongside his equally talented brother, Shaoang Liu. Shaolin may seek out the cameras immediately before or after every race but there is nothing jocular about his approach when the gun goes.
It is an approach that has been forged by China in more ways than one. First up, as he and younger sibling Shaoang explain on The Ice Skating Podcast, there was the critical move to China as teenagers in 2007. Here the talented but wayward Lius learned about “team play, strict rules” and what “dedication” really means.
But beyond that everything changed for Shaolin in particular with the arrival in Hungary five years later of their Chinese coach, Lina Zhang. She drew out the potential they had glimpsed in China. Not only did she change their physical training but Shaolin’s mental approach to sport.
Shaolin Sandor Liu (HUN) and Shaoang Liu (HUN) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2021©International Skating Union (ISU)
In December 2012 Shaolin made his first ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating quarter-final in Shanghai. Buzzing with excitement the then 17-year-old turned to his coach on the way back to the hotel and told her he wanted to “win World Cups one day”. Her reply was not what he expected.
Shaolin Sandor Liu (HUN) at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
“She said don’t think about that, it’s really hard to win a competition and you might never win any… we are making a plan to always reach the top 32 and next year the top 16 and next year the top eight and after the top eight it’s really easy to qualify for semi-finals and to get on the podium.”
Things may have gone a little quicker than Lina had expected – Shaolin won his first ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating race back in Shanghai in 2015/16 – but the underlying approach has never wavered. It is all about consistency, getting to every semi-final. There is not much time for celebration.
Shaolin Sandor Liu (HUN) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2016©International Skating Union (ISU)
“I became World champion in 2016 [500m], I was so happy that I was the first [Short Track Speed Skating] world champion in our country and I went in the dressing room screaming, so happy. After 15 minutes my coach came over and said, ‘OK, that was enough, you’ve had your time, you have to forget everything about it’,” Shaolin laughed.
“She was right. That was the end of the season and the new season was coming. Next year I would travel as a World champion but I couldn’t race like I was a World champion.”
Shaolin Sandor Liu (HUN) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2021©International Skating Union (ISU)
This attitude was critical at Shaolin’s defining moment. Having arrived at the 2018 Olympic Games as a major medal threat in both the 500m and 1000m, the already multi-European and World championship medal-winner saw the other side of sport. A disappointing eighth in the 1000m, Shaolin was devastated by his failure to qualify for the A final in the 500m. He was on the verge of pulling out of his final individual race – “I hadn’t come to race the B final” – when Lina pulled him to one side and told him to “go and win the B final and then go and win the Relay”.
He promptly did both. Being Shaolin he could not resist putting Queen’s We are the Champions on the changing room speakers before he and his brother led the Hungarian quartet to the start line but then that is just who he is.