Gymnastics' Latest Child Star
February 1987 When the wiry 15-year-old landed neatly on the blue mat after her smooth set of floor exercises, the gymnasium burst into applause. All the judges lifted their signs: a perfect 10. From then on Chen Cuiting, the youngest athlete at the competition, became the talk of the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul.
Chen Cuiting was born in Changsha, Hunan on July 15, 1971. Her father was a worker, and her mother a tobacco cutter from the country. Ill-fed as a girl, Chen looked anything but an athlete, with a big head set on a short neck and a pair of small hands dangling from her arms. In order to "steel her nerve" her mother had sent her early to a part-time sports school, and Chen was instantly taken up with gymnastics.
Two years after her basic training, Chen Cuiting participated in the national children's gymnastics competition in which she placed second in vaulting and third in the floor exercises. She had strong legs and lots of bounce, and she was nicknamed "tumblebug." In early 1983, Chen Cuiting captured third place for her flawless performance in the national gymnastics tournament. That same year she was transferred to the state gymnastics team.
Training on that team was even more rigorous. In order to perfect a single movement, Chen had to practice the same routine over and over again until she had mastered the essential points. She was often exhausted after the session. Once the back of her ear bled after hitting the beam, but with a bandage she continued training until she had learned all the new moves. Swinging on the uneven bars, she had to blister her hands because the gloves were too big for her. In the floor exercises, where facial expression also counts for points, Cuiting worked conscientiously until she could smile spontaneously to the music. In the national gymnastics competition in 1986, she captured the floor exercise championship for the first time at a cost only she herself realized.
At home, Chen's parents and brother give her encouragement. Her brother always reserves drumsticks for her at dinner. "Eat them and you'll have strong legs and win," he says. Perhaps she owes her three gold medals from the Asian Games to his generosity.
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