“I want to see my grandmother again,” says Leng Mei softly, as a translator interprets. “My grandma died before she could meet my son.” Leng Mei’s son, Ye Leng Xi, is nicknamed Tutu and loves to draw animals, especially bears and frogs. He is three years old.
Family is very important in Chinese culture; it is customary for the grandparents like Leng Mei’s to raise their grandchildren while the parents work to become the best versions of themselves that they can be.
And Leng Mei has truly become the best version of herself. The Asian record holder for the 400-meter sprint and 100-meter hurdles, she’s lived up to her name. In Chinese, Leng Mei means to be proud of yourself and not care what people say, for you will get everything you wish for.
And her wish has come true. One of 89 coaches who participated in a three-month cultural exchange and residency program at the University of Utah, Leng Mei’s path to stardom was pre-destined. When she was in first grade, her Physical Education teacher sensed a latent running talent and later encouraged her to try to get into the top middle school in the China.
“I am so grateful for him. He changed my life and launched my career in track and field.” Leng Mei began training as a runner at seven years old, running an hour a day, and later trained four hours each day of her 11-year professional career. “My favorite feeling is surpassing my opponent. It’s like a drug for me!”
Throughout her running career, Leng Mei kept in touch with her old coaches; a few years ago her high school coach invited her to be a coach herself in her alma matar. He also taught her the most valuable lesson of her life: “Never give up. Do everything with utmost confidence. Have a good beginning and a solid ending.”
“I didn’t want an ordinary job or to have an ordinary life. I wanted to do something I love. So I decided to be a coach,“ Leng Mei says. Leng Mei now coaches 22 female runners in middle and high school in her hometown in Sichuan Province.
The biggest differences between the Chinese and American ways of coaching, she says, is how detail-oriented American coaches are, and how focused on the individual. Before she came here she thought it was impossible to take care of each athlete, but here she sees coaches paying attention to each athlete at each of their events; they place a premium on the athletes’ psychological health, or even the brand of their shoes. “There is a certain professionalism that I love. It’s very evidence-and knowledge-based. And the athletic facilities are much better than in a Chinese college.”
So what are the biggest differences between American and Chinese ways of playing a sport and coaching? “Sports are more relaxed in China. People there are not as passionate about sports, and don’t hold themselves to as high of a standard. Here, I’ve seen an athlete cry when he won a first place championship because he still didn’t do his best and knew he could do better. “
An only child nestled in a country of only children, Leng Mei was born to a father who was a rubber factory worker and a mother who owned a clothes shop. Her father’s job disappeared one day, forcing him to help Leng Mei’s mother with her clothing business after the factory’s boss ran away with all the factory’s capital. When Leng Mei had her son, her mother closed the store; her father and mother now care for him while Leng Mei works. But Leng Mei wishes to make some changes upon returning to China: “I want to adopt the American or Utah way. I go hiking and see all these pregnant women, or women with little children in tow. In China, the weekends are for personal rest and rejuvenation, but I like that here, free time is reserved for the family; they spend quality time with their children. I want to do the same with Ye Leng Xi.”
It is clear that Leng Mei is very fond of Salt Lake City. “There are no skyscrapers like the other big cities I’ve visited [while being in the United States]. But whenever I come back to Utah, I feel like I’m home. The city is so very clean, the school is clean, even the windows are washed regularly. I saw a cleaning lady on her knees washing windows! I didn’t know that people could be that dedicated to their job! People in Salt Lake City are very friendly and say hi on the streets. While they’re in their cars, they even roll their windows down to say hi!”
And she also sees a lot of similarities between her people and those living here, on the other side of the world. “Both Americans and the Chinese care deeply about sports and are very competitive. And deep inside, we want to communicate with each other. This earth is so big, if you have just one country in charge, it’s too much for just one. But if strong countries [like China and the United States] work together, there is synergy and more efficiencies with better results. We are stronger, together!”