I got the opportunity to have a talk with Shaolin Sándor Liu, Hungary’s first short track speed skater to become a World Champion, who also won silver and bronze medals at further World Championships, European Championships, World Junior Championships and golds again at World Cups. He’s a member of the successful relay team (alongside Shaoang Liu, Viktor Knoch, Csaba Burjan, and Bence Oláh), can be found at the 7th place on the current Overall World Ranking (which is by the way topped by his brother, Shaoang) and is ahead of the great challenge that is the Winter Olympic Games, held in Pyeongchang in February 2018.
How do you feel about yesterday’s interview (a 2-hour-long event titled “Zuglói ötkarikás beszélgetések”, focusing on getting to know a bit more about the talented Hungarian athletes who represent/ed the country at the Olympics and are related to Zugló, this time starring the Liu brothers), what was this experience like for you?
I think it was quite a new thing for us, we haven’t participated in such a conference-like interview before, where many people are present and might have the chance to ask us a few questions. It was absolutely pleasant, and we also have to learn how to talk in such circumstances and how to make those people laugh, cause if we were to go there with a prepared speech, well, most probably everyone would’ve fallen asleep or left the room. We tried to create a good atmosphere, one that would encourage the audience to come back and see us again sometime in the future.
Do you ever prepare for interviews?
No, absolutely not. I remember when I watched back my first interview recently it felt very bad. Sometimes I’m nervous but I always try to speak as well as possible and sell ourselves and our sport. So, I’d say it’s still in progress: once you’re completely carefree and able to explain everything but other times you’re incapable of uttering a word. It really does vary.
How do you feel about giving interviews abroad – is it any different from doing it at home, are you more nervous there?
I’ve been interviewed in China before and it was quite weird there too, cause I wanted to talk about so many things at the very same time that eventually the whole language got confused. But I also gave an interview in Holland (at the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships earlier in March) which went pretty well, of course though, I wasn’t speaking in Dutch but in English and it went very freely.
What do you like the most about being interviewed?
That I get to make people laugh.
What if they don’t laugh, has it ever happened?
Yeah, it has, I was just waiting and expecting a laughter but nothing happened.
Do you have any tips or some sort of a survival guide for having to deal with so many interviews?
I saw an ad on the TV the other day, on History, and it was about how we should speak and the people there said that it is always recommended that we begin with a story. I can always recall a story – so did I yesterday – and thus release the tension or stress. It can also be useful in emergency situations, as it gives some time to think about an answer.
You mentioned that you don’t quite remember anything about the Sochi Olympics – by any chance, is there a competition that has a vital memory for you?
I always say that we have to put aside a success just the same way as a failure, we have to go on somehow and get further on the ladder. I always watch back the races but I can’t even remember the moment when I overtook the Chinese skater (Dajing Wu) at the World Championships (in Seoul, 2016). I just try to focus on the present.
Looking back at becoming a World Champion in 2016 (winning the 500m), in what do you think you have changed the most – regarding your personality or work?
I’ve become much more serious, I try to focus more and more on the trainings to make it possible to experience such a success again once or even more times in my life.
What are the things you still need to improve and focus on more?
Well, perfection is never reached, anytime there’s a problem then comes another one, so the coaches and I are aiming to handle them well. They might not even be huge mistakes but rather several tiny ones.
Minor slips or how shall we think about it?
Absolutely. Think about having your knees badly positioned at the most basic squats, or moving your hip while emerging from a squat, or even having your feet at 6 cm instead of 5 cm.
What would you say are the greatest lessons or gifts you’ve learnt or gained through sports and being a professional athlete?
Success, fame (laughs). I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it. I learnt a lot when we moved to China with Ádó (his also talented brother, Shaoang, a World Junior Champion speed skater with several medals from European and World Championships), as it was pretty much only the two of us and this taught us how to prepare for life. It wasn’t quite easy in China – a completely different community and life.
You said fame, I was wondering whether it’s weird when people just randomly go up to you at the streets and say they saw you competing and loved it and congratulate on your work? Have you got used to it or can anyone get used to such a thing?
I’m not bothered by it at all, cause I’ve always longed for it. It has to be handled somehow, you talk to them but you still have to sell yourself to not be just someone on the TV achieving great results. So you stop for them and start a conversation, when someone approaches you asking whether you’re that speed skater – you answer, yes I am, and ask if they do some sports or saw you on the TV…These small talks can have a huge impression on people.
What does it feel like when they tell you that you and the team motivate them – how do you cope with helping others reach their dreams?
I guess, I’ve had, I’m sure you too, some people who I’ve found motivating and encouraging to be like them. These things were and will always be around and I think it’s great that we can influence people.
And a big task…Besides, sometimes there are quite some pressure on you, can you always close out the expectations of others, let go of the stress, and prepare in a relaxed mood or do these things rather pump you up?
Some people can close them out, some can’t. I, for one, always think that I’ve got nothing to worry about and rather try to enjoy these years as long as I can, cause there will always be a younger one who’s faster and stronger than you…it’s just the matter of time.
Is there anything you always do before a competition?
I touch my eyebrows.
But that’s already on the ice right when you’re lining up! How about even before that?
I always discuss the races with the coaches, we think them through, but nothing else, I don’t have any rituals, I’m not superstitious. I always check my equipment after the technicians took a look at it but nothing special.
Most of the times it can be seen that you have your ears plugged, what are you listening to before going on the ice?
I always listen to some music, which cheers me up at that moment. As I don’t really understand the lyrics of English songs I focus on the rhythm, that’s what gets me.
Are your song choices any different when it comes to picking tunes for a competition and a training?
No, absolutely not. I really listen to what’s new and current, and I have that on for a month all the time and then never again. Always what’s current.
Also, you mentioned this eyebrow-touching-action of yours, and I haven’t seen many skaters having such a characteristic move, so, how did the idea of having a signature introduction come to your mind?
I think it was really brought in by me and since then everyone’s been doing something. Well, we were at Lina’s (one of the coaches of the national team, Zhang Jing) the other day and she told me how funny my eyebrows were and that I should touch them they must bring me some luck. So, I gave it a try when we were at the European Championships in Sochi and everyone loved it.
Have you ever thought about what would it be if you were doing something else?
I’m not sure, I’ve always wondered about it, as many athletes have signature moves, like Bolt and Mo Farrah, so I’ve been thinking about it but no new ideas yet.
It really seems as if this routine worked out for you – for example in Rotterdam, I remember cameras were capturing the audience and people were imitating it! How do you feel when you see it, are you satisfied?
Absolutely, it makes me feel great, cause it’s a way of releasing stress and it also makes people laugh and it even makes me laugh when I watch it back. I remember when we went to the banquet and the party in Rotterdam after the World Champs and basically everyone who came across me touched my – their eyebrows and winked at me. I guess it had quite an impact on the audience.
Has anyone ever tried to touch your eyebrows then or do they keep the distance?
No, they keep the distance. So far. I don’t know how it will change but I think it’s going in quite a nice direction and it relaxes me too.
What would be your current interests if you weren’t skating?
I’m not sure, really. I’ve always wanted to be rich and if I were rich I’d surely be relaxing in Ibiza.
Oh, is that the dream?
Well, not really the dream, cause this sport already got to the point where I could go there any time (laughs) but we all have to deal with these things properly.
How do you try to avoid getting success or popularity too much in your head? Is there any way to handle this, do you remind yourself or the people around you do so to keep you on your feet?
People say you can fall from the top…It happened that others couldn’t pass me by in the corridors cause I was so much. But then the failures came and I learnt that it was not right this way. So, I taught myself to see that it’s not going to be beneficial if I kept on behaving like I did.
Were you ever given any advice that was so significant that it still lives on in your mind? Or one that was completely bad and thus made you do the exact opposite?
I was given the advice that success will only come to those who are patient and work hard. I’ve had this on my mind all the time and anytime a result was not as I or we planned, like in Rotterdam, we had to deal with it properly. Next time it might go well, better late than never.
Have you ever given some real-big advice to someone, which positively changed their lives – a nice word, a good idea, anything of that sort?
I wouldn’t think so, for I don’t have any friends (laughs) really (laughs) no one should ask for my advice…No, it hasn’t happened.
Next up is the preparation for the Olympics and as I know you’ve already begun training; soon the first World Cup which is an Olympic Quota Qualification Competition will be held here in Budapest (September 28 – October 1), and obviously it will be exciting for you to compete at home but how would you try to drive in the crowds to have an atmosphere similar to that in Holland (where short track is a national sport)?
With loads of advertisements. I think it would be a good idea to take the kids from schools to the event by school buses already on Thursday – as the competitions start usually on Thursday or Friday. Kids always need heroes and hopefully we’ll have results which can enable us to become ones. But ads and posters would definitely work. So would being more on the TV.
What’s up with those who say that short track is too complicated, difficult, and has many rules…what do you think about that, is it the case?
Those should go home and sleep (smiles). Actually, you can see it too that we indeed spend a lot of time here at the ice every single day and we work very hard. You have to work hard for this sport, especially as it is not that easy to emerge from and be visibly outstanding at it, unlike at running where if you’re in the top 10 you’ve got nothing to worry about in your life. Unfortunately, it’s not the case for us but let’s hope one day we’ll reach the state when speed skaters are the biggest stars in the world. Seriously, you need to work very hard to make it and if someone doesn’t love it and is too lazy, well, they should really rather go play computer games or anything else.
Is there anything you’d change about the sport, let’s say someone said that everything could change just like this (snaps finger) based on what you tell them – what would you change?
I haven’t really had this in my mind before…I wouldn’t let anyone transfer to other countries.
I don’t think it’s fair. Everyone should keep on working where they have begun. If we were in such a situation as to be able to afford getting six Korean boys, yeah, then we might easily win the Olympics. There are countries where the budget is just far bigger. The Russians could purchase Victor An and it really boosted the whole team.
So you wouldn’t go anywhere then even if you were really invited?
Well, it depends. (laughs)
What are the plans for today, you told me you’re going to have training but what else, what’s an average Friday like for you?
We just got back from our holiday, everyone put on a little weight, 1-2 kilos easily, which we’ll try to lose and then get back to the basics. With us, I’m not sure but I think it’s actually the case with every sport that if you take off more than a week you have to start almost everything from the very beginning. It’s quite a tough job to start over.
What does an average day of yours look like during the practice season?
It looks like getting here (the Practice Ice Rink) by 7 am, training for an hour on dry either upstairs or when the weather is nice we’re outside. Then, we’re on ice from 8-10 am, following that we might have a shorter dry training and then we all go our ways, some home, some to school. And then we’re back by 3 pm, warm up and skate from 4 pm.
Don’t you miss school sometimes? Do you ever think about applying for something after the Olympics?
Well, we’ll see how life goes. If I won a gold medal at the Olympics, I would definitely stop and start a new life. I’d buy a car for 35 million HUF (laughs) and start my life over.
And how was your holiday?
It was fine, not as great as last year when I went to Dominica with Elise (his girlfriend, Elise Christie, British three-time World Champion and European Champion short track speed skater) for two weeks. This time we took the car on a tour, went to Italy – Venice, then to Monaco, and Paris. It lasted for about 10 days but I think the Hungarian mentality doesn’t really support wasting millions on a few-day-long holiday. The idea came from Elise, I would’ve been happy sitting here at home, but (laughs) Elise told me that she always goes on vacation: two years ago, she was in Mexico, prior to that in Florida and last year we went to Dominica together. Actually, we talked about going somewhere similar now too but it wouldn’t have been too nice to get some health issues before the Olympics, so we had a trip in Europe.
Has she begun training as well?
Yes, she has. She’ll come to Hungary during the second week of May and train with us for almost the whole season.
Do you ever train with them in England?
Usually I can go there after a competition when they also have a few days off. Sometimes I can skate with them but I don’t do anything significant.
Based on your experiences what are the differences between a Hungarian and an English training?
They’re completely different. They’re much smarter and their system is built up far better: the technicalities, the equipment, measuring tools…They use these tools during training which I’m quite sure no one knows about here or in other countries.
It’s quite a lucky thing then that you see and get to try them out…
Yeah, absolutely, that’s a totally different world, but what we have we cannot really improve too quickly. They developed themselves through years, they have their own gym with 3-4 squat machines so they don’t have to fight for places or wait till the others finish, everyone can do their own program and then go home. We have to make the best out of what we have.
Other than the technicalities, is there anything you’d improve regarding the Hungarian speed skating life?
I don’t think their coach is at Lina’s level regarding technicalities, but their strength endurance is better than ours. There are always new machines, we just got one for regeneration, brought from the British. Now the whole team uses it. I think one person who specializes in these things is needed, for I only know about the existence of them cause I saw them. Probably if I weren’t with Elise, I wouldn’t know about them at all.
What’s next, cycling or dry training?
Well, some go for the bikes, some go running.
Well then, thank you so much for the interview and have a nice day!