Crossing Yangtze a lifestyle of Wuhan people

Xinhua, July 19, 2023
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by sportswriters Yue Wenwan and Zhao Jiantong

Every morning, before Tian Binqun, a 64-year-old doctor, heads to work in Wuhan, central China, he swims for half an hour in the Yangtze River, China's longest river, or the city's iconic East Lake.

As a urologist at Wuhan University's Zhongnan Hospital, Tian begins work at 7 a.m. His work, filled with operations, is demanding. "I've come to realize how vital swimming is for my health and vitality, given my intense work schedule," he said.

To maintain his swimming regimen, Tian rises at 5 a.m. when indoor pools are generally closed, making open water an optimal choice. "I freshen up, drink some milk and then drive off to swim about a kilometer. This routine keeps me energetic for the day," Tian said.

Tian was among more than 1,900 swimmers who participated in the Wuhan Yangtze River Crossing Festival, one of the world's most challenging swim events, on Sunday. He swam six kilometers during the renowned citywide physical fitness gala.

Located at the confluence of the Yangtze River and its longest tributary, the Han River, Wuhan is home to 165 rivers and 166 lakes. These abundant water resources foster a deep-seated love for open-water swimming among Wuhan's inhabitants.

"Many people in Wuhan swim in the Yangtze River because they want to challenge nature, endure tough conditions and build their resilience," said Yao Qin'an, director of Wuhan's social sports instruction center. "To some extent, the Wuhan population's penchant for crossing the Yangtze reflects the city's determined spirit."

The Yangtze River's average width in the Wuhan section is 1.7 kilometers. Given the potential for wind, rapids and whirlpools, crossing the Yangtze is a significant challenge.

"Swimming in the Yangtze River is truly challenging. It's unlike any other competition course I've experienced. The strong current makes for a challenging crossing, but it's immensely rewarding when you reach the other side," said Ashley Hogg, a PhD student from Manchester, England, who has competed in the festival four times and once placed fifth in the 1.8-kilometer race.

Hogg added, "The event requires strategic thinking and adaptation. It aligns with the city's slogan - 'Wuhan, different every day.' One day, you need to aim in one direction to finish in a good time. But the following day or year, slower currents could render the same strategy ineffective, so constant adaptation, strategy, and rigorous training are required."

While crossing the Yangtze has been a Wuhan tradition for decades, the sport faces challenges of continuity. Most open-water swimmers are over 50, with fewer young people showing interest.

To engage younger generations, the Wuhan Yangtze River Crossing Festival's organizing committee began encouraging citizens under 35 in 2019 to form a youth phalanx to partake in the six-kilometer public swimming event in the Yangtze River.

This year's youngest participant, 14-year-old Liu Enze, said, "I'm really happy to have finished the race. Although our phalanx consisted of 62 people, we kept good formation and it was quite relaxing." Liu started swimming in the Yangtze River with his father four years ago.

Wuhan offers free swimming access in dozens of natatoriums to students in nine-year compulsory education during the summer holidays for about three weeks. "We're also providing free training courses to over 3,000 primary and secondary school students this summer, teaching them swimming skills and lifesaving techniques," Yao added.

The tide is beginning to turn. This year's Wuhan Yangtze River Crossing Festival champions were Huang Ziqi, a 15-year-old girl, and Wang Baojun, a 17-year-old boy.

Tian, who founded a swimming association at his hospital this year, sees an encouraging trend. "I was pleasantly surprised to see many young colleagues join the association with a keen interest in open-water swimming. It's great that the tradition can continue," he said.