Cheng Peng and Lei Wang: in pursuit of the Olympic dream

February 1, 2024
By Siyi Chen
Photo © International Skating Union (ISU)

All skaters have their own unique stories. This time, we turn our spotlight to the compelling journey of Chinese pair skaters Cheng Peng and Lei Wang - a tale of resilience, collaboration, and unwavering determination on the ice.

Following the Beijing Winter Olympics, the fifth-place finishers Cheng Peng and Yang Jin ended their nearly seven-year partnership. After missing out on the 22/23 season, in March 2023, Cheng decided to team up with Lei Wang, with a shared goal of participating in the Olympic Games in Milan. Cheng, born in 1997, is already a veteran pair skater and a seasoned three-time Olympian (2014 with Hao Zhang, 2018 and 2022 with Yang Jin), while her new partner, Lei, aged 35, is eagerly anticipating his debut in 2026.

Both of their programs - short program to "The Storm-Driven Sea" and free skating to "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" - were choreographed by Lori Nichol. "Lori offers a diverse music collection to us," they said. "For the short program, initially, we leaned towards Chopin's Nocturne Op.9 No.2, which is lyrical and soothing, closer to our style. However, Lori proposed 'The Storm Driven Sea,' which reflects a flight for a new lease of life through storms, symbolizing our strong comeback. The music aligns well with our current feelings, showcasing our condition both physically and mentally. Free skating is an experiment in exploring a new genre for us. The story is of a witch attempting to control the man, inducing him to fall in love with her. After a prolonged battle, she triumphs, declaring her victory over him. We tried to display chemistry, attraction, but also occasional repulsion."

Their competitive journey started with the Club League in August. Despite ranking third after the short program, they clinched the title with a stable performance in the free skate, accumulating a total score of 180.89. After the competition, they expressed gratitude for the opportunity, emphasizing how they cherish the experience of returning to the competition. Although they were teammates for years on the national team and have known each other well, they have faced many substantial challenges, including skating styles, speed, tune, injury treatment, and so on.

They declared their determination, "If the wrist hurts, we practice other things than lifts. If the feet ache, we focus on upper body training. If the upper body is uncomfortable, we concentrate on skating. Every day is a step forward, and we cannot afford to pause. We have our goals, but the most important thing is to take one day at a time and do our best in each training session. We are doing extra warm-ups before training every day to ensure our best condition."

The Shanghai Trophy in October marked their international debut, and they clinched first place with 180.67 points. They believed that they showcased their usual training standards and tested their progress in competitions after identifying issues in training. Sharing a deep understanding and mutual respect, their communication has flowed seamlessly, creating a foundation for success.

Their main focus for the Grand Prix series was on the execution of specific moves and refining Cheng's jumps. Lei's last GP events were the Cup of China (finishing 4th) and NHK Trophy (finishing 3rd) in 2016 with his former partner Xuehan Wang. He was excited to return to the Cup of China, and they finished in third place with a total score of 178.06.

Cheng was satisfied with her triple toe loop in the short program, as she had struggled with it before. She mentioned being fully aware of the abilities and advantages of her new partner and expressed that Lei has supported her a lot, caring about her emotions and concerns. They trust each other and conduct root cause analysis together when facing challenges. Lei affirmed their strong communication as well, stating that it was a bit difficult at the beginning to fit with each other, as the skating styles and jumping habits varied. Now things are getting smoother. "We can now calmly reflect on each day's training and identify areas for improvement. This is our advantage," Lei said.

After only several months of collaboration, they described their journey as a blend of pain and joy. "I often wonder why I continue skating. It's just because I hope to perform on the competition stage. While it might be challenging to train physically as much as younger skaters, we bring more experience in competing and training, displaying a mature understanding of this field," Cheng reflected.

"Cheng is really skillful, and we learn a lot from each other," Lei echoed this sentiment. "Considering ourselves as newcomers, we want to participate in more competitions. Our goal is very clear, as going to the Olympics has always been my dream. This dream motivates us a lot, and we will work hard towards it. Despite being the most senior pair in the national team, we keep our minds open to learning from others, finding inspiration from younger skaters in our team and from seniors like Deanna/Maxime (Stellato-Dudek/Deschamps). Initially, I thought I was the oldest, and upon learning Deanna's age, I was surprised; she is definitely my idol. We feel that we are still young. We are aiming to discover the best way to practice and adjust as professionally as them."

Having a tight schedule of two Grand Prix events in a row, they managed to deliver two clean programs to renew their season best to 186.16 in Espoo, Finland. They won the short program segment but finished only fourth in the free skate, missing the podium by 0.03 points.

After the competition, Cheng Peng made a long post with a vlog on Weibo. Describing the past half-month as a battle with pressure and intensity, she conveyed mixed feelings of joy and happiness, as well as frustration and regret. She felt great as her dream of returning to the competition has been fulfilled but also a bit helpless for missing to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

She wrote, "Honestly, when we first partnered, the words 'Grand Prix Final' had already become rooted in our hearts as a goal. Even though we thought it a bit unrealistic at the beginning, the ability and passion to strive for a dream is particularly satisfying. Without external demands or others' urging, we decided to 'give it our all,' self-imposed and voluntarily. We told ourselves to showcase our full style and energy."

This season's final was held in Beijing, and as a Chinese athlete, she thought it a duty to make a contribution by securing a spot. This sense of duty was motivating and made them feel proud to focus even more on training and competition.

However, they didn't make it. "Despite constantly reminding myself to face the gains and losses of the competition with a calm mind, at this moment, saying there is no regret would be insincere." Cheng continued with dissatisfaction and apologies. "Everyone has made the maximum effort to secure competition opportunities and ensure all-around support. Many people comfort me that missing only 0.03 points is indeed regrettable. But I myself don't care about those 0.03 points - standing on the podium might only preserve the expectation of entering the Grand Prix Final." She acknowledged that competitive sports are about hard clashes. Instead of expecting to gain some kind of luck from the tiny decimal differences, she aimed to continuously strengthen their capabilities, seek further improvements, and find new breakthroughs.

She was grateful for her long career, saying it has taught her to bravely stand up again and again after falling. "Sometimes, when you put in a lot of effort, you're afraid of letting yourself down and failing to meet others' expectations. There are ups and downs psychologically, but I think the essence is to do well in the present. We cannot control other things; what we can control is our present selves. From today onwards, everything is a new beginning. We still have the next competition to embark on. We will stay focused, be open to challenges, and continue to work hard toward the unfinished dream." She finished the post with the emoji of an orange, her nickname. (The word "orange"/"chéng zi" has the same pronunciation as her name.)

After the Grand Prix, they took a break to rest and reboot their bodies and minds. Their following competition was the Chinese Nationals at the end of 2023, and they won the title with a total score of 185.30.

They concluded their biggest achievement of 2023 as returning to competition and devoting themselves. The pair has always held firm beliefs since the beginning of their partnership and credited their love for the sport as the driving force behind the collaboration. Cheng explained, "We are more relaxed to enjoy every second skating. Our life won't be changed by one competition, one success or one failure. We want to cherish the present moment." Lei remarked, "We know our end goal, and we value every day, each training and competition towards it."

First step in their new year's plan was the preparation towards the Four Continents Championships. "Honestly, there's still space for improvements to meet our goals and expectations. We will try our best to deliver our performance to the next level," they said.

With every jump, every lift, and every twizzle, they are marking themselves on the ice. The world eagerly awaits to learn the next chapter in their story of dedication, partnership, and the enduring core of figure skating. We wish them the best for the future.

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