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Golden Lily sets sail in Rio

Published: 5 August 2016
Golden Lily
Lily has secured a place on China’s Olympic sailing team for Rio

Southampton student Lijia ‘Lily’ Xu is an elite sailor. She is also a Masters student at the University of Southampton. When she is in the UK, Lily remains relatively unknown – apart from sailing circles – but in China, she’s now ‘Golden Lily’ after sailing her way to a gold medal in London 2012.


After taking a break from the water following her Olympic success four years ago, Lily is back in competitive form as she prepares to defend her title in the Women’s Laser Radial sailing competition in Rio. Her life and career has not been without challenges but her skill and determination could see her return to the podium once more.

Lily was born in Shanghai, inheriting problems with her vision (very poor sight in her left eye) and hearing (loss of about 50 per cent) that would have ended any fairweather sportsperson’s career. Not Lily. She originally started as a swimmer before an approach at the age of 10 by a local sailing coach in Shanghai asking if she would be interested in ‘steering a boat on the water’. Lily took up the challenge and it wasn’t long before she was winning the Optimist class World Championship – twice – the first time coming in 2001 when she was just 13 years old.

Within five years, Lily again struck gold at a World Championship taking the Women’s Laser Radial title in 2006, the same classification of boat she sailed to a bronze medal in Beijing in 2008 and ultimately the gold medal at the London Games in 2012. That victory gave her the opportunity to carry China’s flag at the closing ceremonies in London and propelled her to instant fame at home with fans calling her ‘Golden Lily’.

“The Olympics is so special; it gathers together hundreds of sports and countries from all over the world,” said Lily. “It is a contest not only of skills but also of mental toughness.

“On becoming an Olympic champion, I felt very lucky to do something I love; I was also so proud to be chosen as the flag bearer for China in the closing ceremony,” Lily reflected. “I realised my own dream as well as several generations of the Chinese sailing community. The gold medal made more Chinese people think about trying the sport themselves, and I’m very proud of that.”

In November 2012, Lily was named the ISAF Rolex Female World Sailor of the Year alongside fellow London gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslie who describes her as a “true sailing champion”. She then went back to university to complete her undergraduate degree in Shanghai before making the decision to set sailing aside and come to the UK to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Southampton.

Being at Southampton had a role in her success, Lily explains: “I chose to study at Southampton because it is reputable all over the world; its location is unique for sailing, as it’s ideally situated for the Solent, with many sailing schools, yachts, and regattas.

“On my premasters course, I learnt how to do research properly, a skill I have used in my sport – for sailing, fitness training, nutrition and psychology. It also enabled me to improve my English and learn about a different culture, which has helped me connect with sailors all over the world. I truly enjoyed my studying time in the University of Southampton and hope I will return soon,” she adds.

Lily completed her premasters at Southampton in 2014/15 but her plans to progress to the full Masters in International Management are on hold until next September after she decided to campaign for and secure a place on China’s Olympic sailing team for Rio.

After she graduates from Southampton, Lily has further ambitions for sailing. “I'd like to keep sailing and try many different boats: yachts, inshore, offshore, and professional regattas like the Americas Cup and Volvo Round the World Ocean Race.”




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