As a young teen growing up in the rural township of Tainan’s Houbi (後壁), Li Shiao-yu (李筱瑜) didn’t have much to do to keep herself entertained except sports. She went swimming every morning and evening, and jogged after dinner till it was bedtime. While others took the bus, Lee ran seven kilometers from home to school.
“I loved running because my body was light when I ran,” Li says.
Fast forward a few decades and Li has grown to become an athlete having many firsts — she is the first and so far the only female professional triathlete in Taiwan, and also the first athlete in the country to compete at the prestigious Ironman World Championship, where she won third place in her age group in 2010.
Known as Taiwan’s Number One Sister (一姐) of triathlon, Li, however, hasn’t merely relied on her natural abilities to get where she is today.
Li first discovered her talent in fourth grade when she was selected to enter sports competitions on behalf of her school, and won first place at almost every game she played. She threw the discus, did the long jump, ran relay races and participated in everything forbidden by the school swim team because track-and-field athletics “stiffen muscles and make you sink in water,” Li says.
She continued to run against the ban imposed by her swimming coach. Misfortune struck when a motorcycle hit Li during a jogging excursion from her high school in Tainan’s Sinying (新營) to Chiayi. She was left bedbound for two months, feeling excruciating pain on the left side of her body every time she tried to move her feet.
Unable to afford physical rehabilitation, the teenage athlete decided to devise and carry out therapy on her own.
“I was at home alone. At first I took tiny steps around the house. Then I was slowly able to walk up the stairs. I eventually made it outside for a run,” Li recalls.
Li’s left arm still tends to curl up when it gets cold in the winter. She has asthma too, likely resulting from the seven years of working and training at school swim teams where she inhaled the chlorine powder that was used to chlorinate swimming pools. The powder is known to cause lasting lung damage.
NEVER GIVE UP
Years of training may have enabled Li to become an outstanding sportswoman, but it is her determination that has carried her to the apex of long-distance triathlon. In college, Li worked odd jobs to fund her studies. After graduating, the young athlete took a job as a fitness instructor and has worked at gyms ever since.
Over the years, Li has grown increasingly dissatisfied with her work at gyms.
“I wanted to do an ultra-distance triathlon because I saw people who lost a leg or survive cancers dare to challenge themselves and push their limit at the races. I was thinking: ‘why can’t I take the challenge too?’” the 36-year-old says.
The grueling race, consisting of a 2.4 mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112 mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon, intimidate even a seasoned athlete like Li, who spent years undergoing rigorous training routines while racing in national contests so as to win cash prizes to cover the costs of competing at international triathlon races.
In 2010, Lin entered her first Ironman Triathlon, the ultra-distance triathlon contests organized by the World Triathlon Corporation, on Hainan Island, China. She won first place in her age group and was ranked 30th in the world as a female triathlete the same year.