Beijing 2008 pain has finally started to dull as gymnast Cheng Fei starts new life
China star can finally be philosophical about 2008 disappointment
She's been retired for nearly two years, but Cheng Fei, the three-time consecutive world champion (2005-2007) in the women's vault and a Beijing Olympics gold medallist, still gets excited when she talks about the famous move to which she gave her name.
Now a teacher at Wuhan Sports Institute in her native Hubei province, Cheng, 26 in May, is fully committed to her work with the students. But she still lights up when she recalls how the 'Cheng vault' came to be.
"We returned from the Athens Olympic Games with huge disappointment and wondered what we could do when the next Games was to be held in our homeland for the first time," says Cheng, in Hong Kong this week for an exchange programme with Baptist University.
"During the winter training camp that year, the coaches faced a big challenge - how to create something sensational for the Chinese women's team so that they could become a dominant force in the next couple of years until the Beijing Olympics.
"Eventually we had a major breakthrough by coming up with the Cheng vault."
Chinese women won only one bronze medal from the six team and individual events in artistic gymnastics in Athens; the entire gymnastics team finished eighth in the medal table out of 15 nations.
But Cheng, only 15 and a last minute call-up because another gymnast was injured, showed her immense potential by finishing fourth in the floor exercise.
"Experiencing the Olympic Games in Athens as a young member of the squad, it was a real eye-opener competing against these best gymnasts in the world, and I was so eager to improve, to reach their level and surpass them. I set a high bar for myself, knowing if you worked hard, you'd have a chance."
It paid off a year later when the Cheng vault was introduced at the 2005 World Championships in Melbourne in November. She performed the "Amanar" (named after the Romanian gymnast Simona Amanar) in her first jump and the "Cheng" - a round-off, half-on to front flip with one and a half twists in her second. Both have a 6.5 difficulty score, the highest at the time, and Cheng became the first Chinese woman to win the world title in the vault.
"The Melbourne World Championships was not the first time I performed the Cheng vault. It was in Macau at the East Asian Games two months previously but I did not handle it well and lost the championship to a North Korean," Cheng remembers.
"After the defeat, I went back to China, refining my skills until I tried it again in Melbourne. This time, it came with little problem."
Cheng was simply unbeatable in the vault for the next couple of years and coupled with her success in the floor exercise at the 2006 World Championships in Denmark, she was considered a huge favourite for Beijing - but it didn't turn out that way.
"The result was not too bad considering we clinched China's first ever women's team Olympic gold medal," says Cheng, the women's team captain in Beijing.
"But in the individual events, I managed only two bronze medals - in the vault and the balance beam, a bit surprised. I also finished a disappointing seventh in the floor exercise.
"Because I had been winning all the way prior to the Beijing Games and there were high expectations especially with the support of the home crowd, the result was not as perfect as we would like to see."
Cheng cried after the finals of the vault and the floor exercise, in which she suffered an uncharacteristic fall. "At that time we all felt very sorry, blaming too much pressure and too high expectations. But looking back, I would say there were some problems which we had not addressed during our build-up to the Beijing Games and that cost us. It's not just because of pressure," she says.
Nagging injuries seriously hampered Cheng over the next few years, but she felt she couldn't retire. "There was something still hanging in my mind like an unfinished job - the defeat in Beijing. I wanted to prove myself in London in the 2012 Games so that there would be no regrets in my career. It also gave me a new and clear target to work for amid the injuries."
By now a veteran by gymnastics standards, Cheng was set for London (despite an absence of almost two years with more injuries) before disaster struck. In June, she ruptured her Achilles tendon during a practice session, taking her out of the running for London and finally confirming her retirement. "Unlike my knee injury in 2009, I knew there was no chance to get back to gymnastics again as the injury was too serious. It was time to call it a day and move on," she says.
Cheng says she is not "sensitive" enough to become an official or an elite coach but when the offer from the Wuhan Sports Institute came, she was more than happy to accept.
"There are many good coaches in China and if you don't want to nurture the next Olympic champion, there a lot of qualified people who can do the job and do it more properly," she says.
"I enjoy my new life as a teacher at the Institute as it does not deal with training professional athletes but more on the grassroots level, more on the education side.
"I will give my new job six to 10 years' time and then I will decide what I should do next. I always want to see more of the world and travelling overseas or going to study in other countries may be one of the choices," she says. "Or maybe I will get married and raise kids. I haven't thought carefully about my future but I would like to thank gymnastics for bringing me a unique life, a unique experience which cannot be found in other people."