The Speedskater Who Attracted A Crowd And Fell

Ohio University's Bird Arena

Normally when a vortex of doom swirls through the Midwest over and over and over and over again, people run for the covers and hot drinks. That’s standard. No reason to leave bed when hell is busy playing pond hockey on Earth. Instead though, here in Bird Arena, the one campus building that artfully neglects the thermostat, which means no disrespect to Bentley Hall, the one that uses temperature as a torture device, students have turned up for the two-hour open skate, but they’re not skating, they’re watching from outside the glass as a blade-thin exchange student with long skates takes off his jacket and tears away his sweats to reveal the China-themed leotard underneath.

The only person enjoying the ice at the top of the 8 o’clock hour is Jinjin Liu, a 24-year-old long-track speed skater from China, and everyone thinks he’s about to put on a show.

Liu is an student at Ohio University, studying mechanical engineering. He first visited America in spring 2011. He said he briefly lost his passport on the trip over - it was lodged in the seat in front of his, somehow - but has found a home in Athens. He’s picked up a decent amount of English, enough to start an organization to help fellow Chinese students adapt to a jarring new life abroad, where they’re sometimes given academic advisors with whom they can’t communicate.

Liu said he has a 3.983 GPA even though his language barrier requires he take extra time on each assignment. He said he chose academics over a potential skating career.

“Over 12 years I’ve been speed skating,” Liu said to a TV reporter, a photographer and a journalist before his exhibition. “When you reach that level you are a professional ice speed skater. For my local city, around seven years no one break my record.”

That was the first time the press in attendance at this thing realized there was a possibility of having been duped. For weeks the same story had been spread around: An Ohio University student was a speed skater who had set multiple world records, and whose cousin would be competing in the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

In 2008, Jinjin Liu did indeed hold a few skating records in his hometown of Duchene City, China, in the 500-, 1,000-, 1,500- and 3,000-meter races. He wasn’t sure if they’ve been broken since, but insisted they were “good records.” He said he had offers to train with the Chinese national team, but he made the decision to focus on schooling instead.

"My parents thought that just being an athlete, I can’t get enough guarantee for my future," Liu said. "They told me I can be a student and go to college and find a stable position and have a stable life. A lot of things we can make sure, and they couldn’t guarantee that I would be the one to win the Olympic games. So I gave it up and went to high school and started my study."

He certainly looked and acted the part of a winter Games athlete. His jacket, pants and tossle cap were all the same shade of bright orange, somehow illuminated even more by the giant light from the TV crew. On the crown of his shaved head he wore sunglasses so shiny that the arena lights above were visible.

Liu eagerly recalled his skating days. He had set the 500-meter track record at 38.85 seconds. Other records, too. His best speed was 13.5 meters per second. He even talked about recovering after a fall.

"I think it was 1,000-meter game I fall down. I make a really big mistake and my front left foot block my right I don’t know how to say it,” Liu said. "Before I fall down another athlete is really far behind me, and when I tried to stand up again I just saw the other guy pass by me. My coach was yelling…’Stand up and run, do it again, the game is not over.’ Suddenly, I stand up and quickly increase my speed…I just came really close to the guy in front of me and he got number one and I got number two.

"But I showed everyone my spirit. I never gave up although I fall down. After that I was never afraid to fall down. If I fall down I will get back up and give pressure to another athlete. I’m the king of this area.”

His confidence level bordered on irrational, even as he stumbled over plenty of English words and phrases, but then again he was commanding the attention of just about every media outlet in town. He had turned a few old records and some campus hearsay into a press conference, the definition of “playing the game.” The arena even OK’d the shutting down of the ice between peewee hockey and the free skate so the reporters in attendance could photograph him in action.

"Do you want me to cut the ice for you?" asked James Walker, an arena employee and Zamboni driver/hero of all hockey fans. "We don’t normally cut it for open skate but if you need it…"

Liu said that he did, in fact, need the ice to be treated. He was aware of his momentary fame, too. The still photographer couldn’t get a good shot because every time he lifted his camera, Liu would contort his face and pose for the picture. He was a total ham, loving it.

Once the interview portion of the evening was complete and open skaters filed in, Liu began his warm-up. First, he went outside into the cold and ran one, two, three, four, five laps around the parking lot. In plain sight of those renting gear he began a series of high-intensity stretches, intended to mimic skating movements. He tested his vertical leap, which was impressive albeit completely unnecessary.

Finally it was time for Liu to skate, which is what everyone watching didn’t know they were there to see. The inevitable game of Telephone, because everyone was anticipating the Games in Sochi and because everyone wanted to see something cool, went like this:

"Who is this guy?"
"No idea."
"I heard he’s going to be in the Olympics."
"Really? Shouldn’t he be, like, over there already?"
"Well, he has the China suit on, so he must be something."

As is customary by the end of Telephone, everyone was thoroughly confused about what they were missing the first 15 minutes of their skate to watch, but they knew it wasn’t nothing.

Liu stepped on the ice, removed his skate guards, and put on the hood attached to his suit. For a few minutes, he looked to be getting accustomed to the ice, just moseying around. His back was hunched, his right arm straight and swinging like a pendulum. He was skating slowly, gracefully, in small circles. He stopped three times and looked quizzically at the TV reporter, who hadn’t given him any instructions. He was flailing on a frozen island. He had continued to skate not speedily, and the crowd – now numbering about 50 – was restless, and then someone gasped.

In the midst of his whimsical jaunt in front of an unplanned group of spectators, Jinjin Liu caught an edge of perfectly groomed ice and fell hard into the boards below the very transparent glass. The noise he made was low, booming and plural – his shoulder hit and then his legs followed.

Everyone was properly embarrassed – Liu, for having fallen, the crowd, for having shamelessly watched the whole ordeal, and those covering the story, for having been there in the first place. Soup and Netflix suddenly sounded pretty good. Liu got up physically unharmed (after all, he’d admitted earlier that he was fine with falling), skated to the open door and, smiling, apologized for the spill.

The camera crews walked gingerly over the ice to record from the opposite angle, and that’s when Liu took his stance: left knee bent inward, right leg straight, arms cocked, torso torqued upward and to his right.

Without a gun or notice, his pistons fired. Furiously his legs pumped, and his arms echoed their movements. He was gaining speed, and for a moment, Jinjin Liu was interesting. This was something the crowd had seen before, on television, once every four years, and it was genuinely thrilling. But what they didn’t know is that a hockey rink is about one-sixth the size of a 400-meter international speed skating oval. After eight steps, Liu turned and slowed to a stop. The rink didn’t provide him enough room to satisfy the crowd. He did his routine twice more for the cameras, and then it was over.

Liu skated off, and the public took the ice they’d earned. Katy Perry was the soundtrack.

The speed skater smiled the whole way to the benches, fielding kind compliments from the onlookers and arena staff. No one wanted to admit it was a total disappointment, and being mean is hard and stupid, so everyone told Liu how good a job he’d done and how much they’d enjoyed it. The most popular phrase was, “Thanks, man, that was awesome.”

No one knew what else to say. For those who knew Liu’s backstory, the fall couldn’t disprove anything, of course. It only made his current status as a skater uncertain. Instead of the event being a showcase, it felt more like a young adult reliving glory days an ocean away in front of a gullible bunch of idiots.