Publication date : 12/03/2019
Lee Chih Kai will arrive in Baku this week for the third stage of the 2018-2020 FIG Individual Apparatus World Cup series as one of the hottest properties in world Gymnastics.
Having won a historic world championship medal last year, the Pommel Horse specialist from Chinese Taipei has followed up with golds at both World Cup events held so far, and is targeting his nation’s first Gymnastics Olympic medal in Tokyo next year. However, Lee has never forgotten his humble roots, nor the unusual manner in which he learned to perform in public.
Hailing from Yilan County in the north-east of his country, Lee started performing rudimentary Gymnastics moves to help attract customers to his family’s vegetable stall in the local market when he was just six years old.
“Because I had just joined the Gymnastics team at that time, my aunts and uncles at the market were very curious,” Lee said. “They asked: ‘What is Gymnastics?’ So I did some basic moves – handstands, rollovers, et cetera, and I had the experience to get used to performing in front of the public. They all felt very happy and very special, because few people practised Gymnastics at that time, so they felt very different.”
Lee has continued to make his family and local community proud, not least when he won Chinese Taipei’s first medal for 25 years at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships, when he took bronze in the Pommel Horse in Doha last year.
“I was very happy to win the bronze medal but it is just part of a process and I cannot be relaxed,” Lee said. “My family was very happy. They were very nervous during the championships and when I completed my performance, a weight was lifted from their hearts and they applauded me.”
For the first time, the current Individual Apparatus World Cup Series is offering gymnasts the chance to qualify directly for the Olympic Games. Lee topped the podium in Cottbus, Germany, with a massive score last November, then again in Melbourne, Australia, in February.
He aims to keep his run going when the third stage starts in the Azerbaijani capital on Thursday (14 March) and throughout the remaining five World Cup events up to March 2020. Points will be awarded according to placement on each individual apparatus and Olympic berths will be distributed based on these totals.
“I hope that Baku will be as smooth as the first two stops, Cottbus and Melbourne,” said Lee, now 22. ”I aim to perform at my (best possible) level and challenge myself.”
Lee’s 31st-place finish in Pommel Horse at the Rio 2016 Games is Chinese Taipei’s highest individual finish at the Olympic Games (their men’s team came 17th at the Tokyo 1964 Games) but Lee was not able to perform to his best in Brazil as he had broken his foot and torn ankle ligaments one month before, forcing him to pull out of the All-around competition.
He is hoping to show what he can do on the Olympic stage in the Japanese capital next year.
“My result at the 2016 Rio Olympics was not so satisfying but it was a great learning experience for me because it is the biggest stage for athletes, and because of my Olympic training I grew a lot. So the Olympics are very significant and impressive to me.
“I hope that I can do a good job in the Pommel Horse (in Tokyo), that I perform well, and I will be able to stand on the podium and create new history. I’ll be very happy if I can win an Olympic medal and also hope to give others more motivation and the strength to work together.”
Lee has already been an inspiration to many in his homeland, having been the subject of two documentaries about his career, both directed by the brother of his coach, Lin Yu Hsin. The two films – Jump Boys! (2005) and Jump Men! (2017) – followed the careers of Lee and six other gymnasts from boyhood to, in Lee’s case, international recognition.
Lee credits the documentaries with helping him maintain his motivation as he strives to fulfil his potential. “I am very grateful to the director for helping me to record my life process,” he says. “Sometimes I go back to watch the documentary and I find my original intentions. It recovers my enthusiasm.”
But despite being a kind of movie star in his home country and hotly tipped for Olympic success, Lee remains aware of his humble roots and appreciative of those who have helped him rise to become one of the most exciting gymnasts on the planet.
“The process of progress is very difficult but I have been helped by many people,” he said. “Only this way can I have such good results today. Without their support and care, there would be no me today, no such international achievements. So I am very grateful to those who helped me.”