Optimist dinghy sailors compete during China`s 11th National Games in Qingdao last week. Xinhua
QINGDAO, Shandong province: Yang Yang`s tanned skin and agile body show he has been exercising outdoors - off shore, to be specific - for a long time.
Born in 1995, Yang picked up sailing at the age of eight and has been battling fellow young sailors and sometimes stormy seas for six years now. As captain, he helped China win the 2009 Optimist Dinghy (OP) Racing World Championship in Niteroi, Brazil in August and finished eighth in the singles in a field of 211 sailors under the age of 15.
However, the Under-15 world team champion revealed he has set himself big goals after leading his home Shanghai Optimist team to victory at 11th National Games in Qingdao on Monday.
"I want to be the next Xu Lijia," the 14-year-old told China Daily, referring to the female champion at 2001 and 2002 OP World Championship who went on to win the Laser Radial class single-handed dinghy event at 2006 World Championships and claim bronze at last year`s Beijing Olympic Games.
"Every athlete wants to stand on the Olympic podium and I`m no different."
Optimist dinghy racing is the cradle of world and Olympic medalists and China is an emerging power in the sport, according to Zhang Jing, the current coach of Yang and the mentor of Xu until 2003.
"Most of the sailors of our generation were originally swimmers before changing to sailing. Few people knew what sailing was really about at that time," the 41-year-old, who now trains about 20 children from ages 8 to 15 in Shanghai, said.
Zhang, among China`s first generation of windsurfers, didn`t get acquainted with a sailboard until she was 16. She was a national team member from 1989 to 1993, before becoming an OP coach.
"Now the young generation starts at an early age. It allows them to develop solid fundamentals and a comprehensive understanding of the sport, which is crucial for their long-term development.
"With an expanding pool of Optimists in China, I have every belief we will turn out more sailors like Xu Lijia in the future."
China didn`t make a ripple at the Olympics until the 1992 Barcelona Games where Zhang Xiaodong sailed to silver in the women`s Lechner A-390 class.
The country claimed its first gold last year through Yin Jian in the women`s RS:X.
In Qingdao, the host city of last year`s Olympic sailing competitions, the "Thousand Sailboards Program" has been promoting the sport at the junior level since 2006. Sailing has been introduced to more than 140 schools while summer camps over the past four years have given more than 5,000 children their first experience of riding the wind and waves.
"Kids in Qingdao are born familiar with the sea and the Olympic sailing competition has ignited their passion for sailing," said Lin Zhiwei, deputy chairman of the coastal city`s sports association. "We aim at building an integrated system from primary school to college."
Qingdao is a good example for other cities in China to follow, says Li Quanhai, vice chairman of the Chinese Yachting Association.
"There`s a booming market in the post-Olympic period; the coastal cities should make full use of it. We will see how it works in Qingdao and then do nation-wide promotions," Li said.
He also pointed out that a large gap still remains between western countries and China.
"It`s like a pyramid, Optimists are the base. Now we have only hundreds of Optimists and professional players around. We must speed up."
There are about 130,000 registered Optimists in the world, according to the website of the International Optimists Dinghy Association.
Li`s thoughts were echoed and expanded by Zhang, who trained in Denmark in the early 1990s.
"Everyone in China knows about table tennis, the champions, the history, but the majority of people have a very vague concept about yachting.
"In the west, it`s not only about gold; it is part of people`s lives and rooted in their culture. We still have a long way to go."