Golden Lily by Lijia Xu

I received an advanced copy of Golden Lily by Lijia Xu in the post a couple of months ago - I suppose because I reviewed a couple of Fernhurst's books late last year. It came as a very welcome surprise, and I immediately dropped the book I was reading, and got stuck in.

I intended to post a review straight away, but I had difficulty writing it. You see, Golden Lily is an unusual autobiography, and it has taken a while to get my thoughts straight on the book.

Reading about a culture that is alien to me is fascinating. Interestingly, in her bibliography Lijia Xu lists 15 books, and 13 of them are about sailing or sport performance. One of the remaining two is Wild Swans, by Jung Chang. If you haven't already read it, I strongly recommend you do so (not least because it frequently turns up on "Top 100 books" lists). It is an utterly brilliant and hugely effecting insight into China, and a book that lives long in the memory.

Of course, Lijia Xu's  book doesn't provide the same level of insight as Wild Swans. This is not a criticism, for few could write a book with the scope and penetration that Jung Chang achieves. (And anyway, it is not Lijia Xu's intention to write a sweeping view of Chinese culture over the twentieth century - she's writing a sailing autobiography). But, for us sailors, it does shine a light on how sport in China works, and how the system both helps and hinders their athletes as they work towards sporting excellence. It makes one wonder how Lijia Xu would have fared had she been brought up in a different environment.

You sense, throughout the book, that Lijia Xu (or Lily, as she often calls herself) is torn between a great love of her country and real disappointment in it too. She is proud to have represented China, and works hard to develop sailing there, but she also seems to wish for more for the Chinese people. Having travelled a lot and experienced the world, she really appears to carry two different emotions about her country at the same time, and she seems to feel both grateful that her childhood enabled her to become an Olympic champion, whilst also feeling a strong regret at what was lost because of this very path.

Of course she'd probably still have been hugely successful no matter where she grew up. The fact is that she won the gold medal in part because of the system (she was, after all, a full time sailor from the age of 10), but also in part despite the system. She showed great independence of thought and huge initiative - she learnt English so that she could read sailing books produced in the Western world, and so she could speak to and learn from sailors from outside of China. Her work ethic and discipline is extraordinary, and whilst it is easy to attribute this to her Chinese background and the Chinese system, the fact of the matter is that many other sailors had the same background and were part of the same system as her and they didn't win an Olympic gold medal.

Lijia Xu did.Golden Lily - Lijia Xu

It is tempting to focus on the obstacles that Lily overcame to achieve her success - separation from her family and friends at a young age, her limited hearing and sight, her injuries, her difficult relationships with the Chinese hierarchy. But for me the real story is the triumph individuality, and how the desire to constantly develop, to constantly be better, can carry a person all the way to the very top.

This desire was the driving force that enabled Lily to discover Jon Emmet's book Be Your Own Sailing Coach. She was proactive enough to actually seek Jon out (via Facebook), develop a relationship with him and then engage him as a coach. It is the kind of resourcefulness that separates the elite from the merely excellent.

Jon Emmett appears throughout the book, and his influence on Lily is obvious and acknowledged many times. I was fortunate enough to chat to Jon last year, and I can understand why he has been so important to Lily's sailing success - he really is incredibly engaging, open, giving and positive. I am tempted to write that she is very lucky to have been able to work with him (and likewise him with her), but luck didn't really play a role - the determination, work ethic and, of course, the desire to learn and improve, seem to have drawn them together. And together they conquered the world.

Me being me, I can't help but be selfish and think about how the book can help me. And there is lots here that is very useful for sailors. The book is punctuated by 'Interludes' and 'Positive Affirmations', where Lijia Xu shares her thoughts on a range of topics, from nutrition to working relationships, from creating balance in one's life to mental attitude.

These small sections are immensely valuable, and I have revisited them several times since reading the book (to the point that I have marked some of the pages to make them easy to find). Not all of them are useful to me personally (Elegance may be an Attitude for Lijia Xu, but for me it is a distant and unacheivable dream), but the majority provide real insight into a champion's thought processes. I dearly wish that other biographies that I have read had sections like these - the life story is fascinating and compelling, but these sections provide a practical blueprint to develop a more personalised route to self improvement.

Golden Lily is a fascinating and unusual read. With biographies of dinghy sailors nearly as rare as an uncontroversial America's Cup, it is refreshing and illuminating to be able to see into the mind of a champion sailor, especially one from China. And with Rio round the corner, it is a timely insight into one of the leading medal contenders for the Games.


Where to Buy Golden Lily

United States
Great Britain and Ireland


Lijia Xu's Bibliography

3 thoughts on “Golden Lily by Lijia Xu

  1. This book provides a fascinating peak into a very different system of living and training. One which Lily both accepted and then eventually broke away from to study in the UK, despite the threats to lose her life-long privileges as an Olympic Champion.

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