Olympic Medalist Yang Yang Speaks at Commencement 2022
Dear Chancellor Tong, Vice-Chancellor Lehman, President Hamilton, proud parents, and the NYU Shanghai Class of 2022,
Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of your Commencement. It is such an honor to be here to celebrate this important milestone moment with all of you. I am also deeply honored to receive the Chancellor’s Medal of Honor. Thank you very much Chancellor Tong and NYU Shanghai！
My last experience related to New York was in 2015. During the bidding process for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. I was there to promote the bid, and convince people why China could successfully host the Winter Olympic Games.
During the trip, I met with Angela Ruggiero, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from the US women’s ice hockey. We had a beautiful brunch in downtown Manhattan, and then she proposed to take a walk in Central Park. It was a really cold day, but the air was so crisp, and my heart was filled with hope and anticipation.
During the walk, we talked about how both of us started skating, about our first Olympic experiences, and how our family and friends were supporting us. We also shared some views of what was happening in the world at that time and what kind of future we were facing.
We were both surprised by the fact that even though we grew up in different countries, we were so much alike in our passion for sports and our belief in sports. In the end, she wished China won the bid.
Fast forward to 2022, just a few months ago. Athletes from all over the world, who’ve overcome the tremendous challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and are living through great uncertainty, gathered in Beijing.
When they arrived, I was so excited and moved. And of course, their performances became the focal point of the world. They competed to fulfill their life-long dreams, and they competed for their countries’ honor by respecting the same rules and respecting each other. On top of that, they also supported each other and celebrated together to show the world that even if we look different and have different beliefs, we can all be together and show our talent and the glory of human nature. This is the power of sports that I believe, which has always inspired me to move forward.
Chancellor Tong earlier mentioned that he wished you could be like me and “learn from enduring unusual physical and mental challenges in athletic training.” I can deeply feel Chancellor Tong's love for you.
However, I would like to expand on his words and share with you that while we may not have a choice in when the pandemic ends or when life can get back to normal, we always have a choice in the attitude that we have towards challenges and difficulties. Such an attitude will be the foundation from which you build your future. And the hardships you face today may one day prove to be the best training program for a stronger you.
Here I would like to share a personal story with you. In 1998, I participated in my first Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. As the new World Champion in 1997, of course my goal was to win medals or even gold medals in the Olympics, however, reality was far from what I hoped. I was disqualified in both events that I entered, and in one of the events - the Women’s 1000 Meters - I broke the world record in the semifinal and crossed the finish line first in the final. However, I was disqualified two minutes later.
The taste of victory was so close yet so far away. Can you imagine how that must have felt? Faced with such results, it seemed I had no choice. I suppose I could have blamed the referee as the judgment was quite controversial after seeing the replay, then… life moved on.
But to be honest, I knew it was not going to help with solving the issue, and I was worried that it might happen again in future races. Then, I decided to face the defeat head on, not blame the referees or other skaters, but focus on myself to find out where I can do better and use it as a motivating factor to move forward.
Because of the positive choice that I made for myself in 1998, I was able to win each of the next five World Championships following the Nagano Olympics. Here I can prove that hardships will be the best nutrition to help you be strong. But it will do only with your positive thinking.
The pandemic of the past two and half years has been a big challenge for all of us, me included. Especially during the lockdown over the last couple of months, I have experienced confusion, anger, complaints, and fear of the uncertain future.
You see, for an athlete, having a goal, putting in your best effort is not the problem; the problem is when you don’t have a sense of purpose and direction. After my loss in Nagano, I was faced with a decision whether or not to train for another four years for the next Olympics.
But the decision was far from clear cut. I would be four years older, I had already carried some injuries, even if I was in good shape, there was no guarantee that I could win, like in Nagano. I also knew that if I couldn’t give myself a clear sense of purpose, even if I continued to train and compete, I might suffer from a lack of motivation and self-confidence, especially if I was faced with challenge and defeat.
After struggling for about a month, I realized that I could accept failure, but I couldn’t accept a not 100% dedicated “me.” Once I came to this realization, the rest became clear and simple. During the following four years, I didn’t waver, and I was able to enjoy the learning and growth that came with every challenge and failure.
This realization gave me the self-confidence and determination that eventually helped me to achieve my first gold medal which was also the first gold medal for China in the Winter Olympics.
The wisdom gained from these previous experiences has helped me get through the last couple months of lockdown with a positive attitude. I am still trying my best, hoping everything goes well, but I am also ready to meet the challenges.
Aim high, stay grounded, keep learning: those are the goals I set for myself after I retired and started my new life. I founded the Champion Foundation, started my skating club, devoted myself to developing sports for good, and dedicated my time to working in International Sports Organizations.
I have learned that aiming high will help you to “ignore” short term setbacks, and give you a sense of purpose and make you strong. And if that long term mission helps to make a positive contribution to society, you will receive your fair share. So, I encourage you to make that alignment. And you will find such alignment will bring you happiness. Staying grounded and continuing to learn is the way to help you achieve your goals and dream over your lifetime.
Last but not least, believe in the power of love. Because I believe the love of your family, your school, your teachers, and your friends have helped to shape who you are and have helped you to arrive at today’s special occasion. You have already achieved so much. You will help to shape the future of this world. May the force be with you! Go NYU Shanghai. Jia you!