Chinese sailor Xu Lijia overcame huge obstacles and setbacks to win gold at the Olympic Games London 2012, and is now helping to motivate fans around the world by sharing her inspirational journey through the Online Experiences available on Worldwide Olympic Partner Airbnb’s platform.
Xu Lijia’s path to the top of the Olympic podium was anything but plain sailing.
The Shanghai native was born nearly deaf in one ear and nearly blind in one eye, but she refused to let these genetic conditions hold her back and took to sailing at the age of 10 like the proverbial duck to water, winning the Chinese national championships in 1998, just a year after taking up the sport.
World and Asian titles soon followed, and she seemed destined to star at the Olympic Games Athens 2004 until doctors found a giant-cell tumour of bone near her left knee in the build-up to the Games. Surgery to remove the tumour ruled her out of the Olympic trials, denying her Olympic dream, but Xu refused to let the setback hinder her sporting ambitions.
After switching to Laser Radial class dinghies in 2005, Xu won gold medals at the 2006 World Championships in Los Angeles and the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, before finally making her Olympic debut on home waters at Beijing 2008, where she clinched a bronze medal.
Four years later, she stood even higher on the podium as she won gold at London 2012, with her inspirational story resulting in her being chosen as China’s flagbearer for the Closing Ceremony.
Now, she is hoping that her experiences of overcoming multiple adversities to succeed will help inspire others, as she shares her story through the IOC and Airbnb’s Olympian and Paralympian Experiences.
“I share my sailing story of my whole career; what I learned, what I lost and then how I conquered all the difficulties and obstacles,” explains Xu. “I hope to inspire more people so that they can face their own challenges positively. I'm always very keen to share my own stories and also some of the not-so-good things I've experienced in the hope that, by hearing my stories, people can learn from my mistakes without the need to experience them for themselves. And then also I would like to pass on more positive energy to people and hopefully to inspire them to maintain their optimism, however hard the situation they are in.”
Xu has certainly found herself in hard situations before – not least when she was stranded at sea for two hours in 17-metre waves and 75kmh winds when she was hit by a sudden storm while training on open water at the age of 12 – but the 32-year-old believes that all the challenges she has faced have helped her grow and develop, as both a sailor and a person.
“Throughout my sailing career, I've experienced numerous operations and injuries, and at the time I sort of feel, ‘Why has this happened to me again? Why am I so unlucky?’,” she says. “But actually, my past experience has taught me that it was through those times that I've become a better person. I've become a stronger woman and also a mentally tougher sailor, which all lead to the top level in my sport. So, all this positive thinking or mentality can actually help us conquer those difficulties. Maybe there are some things we cannot change, but we cannot cry over spilt milk. What we can do is what we have control of at this moment. So instead of looking at the negative side, why don't we choose to look in an optimistic way, so that we can maximise our situation and only make it better instead of indulging in a bad spiral?”
Xu speaks passionately and enthusiastically about her bumpy road to the pinnacle of sport, and is excited to share what she has learnt with a wider audience through the Olympian and Paralympian Experiences on Airbnb, which give fans all over the world the chance to join athletes for online talks and activities.
According to Xu, the unique nature of the Online Experiences means that guests can gain more from the sessions than they would from simply attending an athlete’s motivational talk or public speaking event.
“When they join the Olympian and Paralympian Online Experiences, they have a very intimate interaction with these athletes or Olympians,” she explains. “That's a very unique experience because normally when we, for example, do public speaking, it's mainly one-way communication; we just talk. Whereas with the Online Experience, it's a very limited small group, so every single participant can get some sort of communication with us and direct Q&A time, and so they get far more than they would from normal public speaking.”
And Xu believes that there is much that fans can learn from her and other athletes.
“For all the guests joining the Online Experiences on Airbnb, they can get a lot from our own stories,” she says. “For example, we've experienced so many injuries, how to prevent them, how to lead a healthy life, and we've also conquered a lot of setbacks and how we maintain our mental toughness, despite those difficulties. All of these skills can be used by everyone in their normal lives, so I hope people attending these Olympian and Paralympian Online Experiences can get some top tips to improve their lives as well.
From an Olympic champion such as Xu, who has had to navigate far choppier waters than most to reach the top, there is surely much that can be learnt.