A disqualification in the 1000m final at Nagano Olympic Winter Games in 1998 proved a bitter pill for Yang Yang to swallow, but she would erase the memory in spectacular fashion four years later. With a despairing lunge of her arm in the final in Japan, Yang was disqualified by the judges and was made to wait a further four years before tasting genuine Olympic success.
In the four intervening years she imposed herself on the world stage. At the 2002 World Championships in Montreal she performed a clean sweep in the 500m, 1000m, and 1500m events and she arrived in Utah as the red-hot favourite for gold.
China had never won a gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games before the Olympic family convened in Salt Lake City.
In an event where the slightest mistake can lead to disaster, the pressure was clearly weighing heavily on Yang’s shoulders as the five-woman field lined up at the start of the 500m. However a few lung-bursting surges into the contest Yang had practically put the race beyond doubt.
The woman who took up the sport at age eight was the very image of focus and concentration. She gradually extended her lead to the bell and no last-turn drama was going to deny her this time.
She hurtled over the line to win by 0.67 seconds in an Olympic record time. Emotional scenes followed as Yang and a team-mate, also called Yang Yang, celebrated China’s historic breakthrough gold.
Less than a week later and Yang was celebrating her second gold at the Salt Lake Ice Center with the narrowest of wins over South Korea’s Ko Gi-hyun in the 1000m.
She won a valiant bronze in the 1000m in Turin in 2006 and her final world championship tally had reached 34 golds by the time she retired later that year. She would later be elected as a member of the International Olympic Committee.