Golden girls’ gift of glory

Much-loved women’s squad dedicates latest World Cup triumph to nation’s 70th anniversary celebrations

Incredible, invincible, inspirational, immense… whatever adjective you choose to describe China’s volleyball heroes, there can be no denying the special place they inhabit in the nation’s heart.

On Saturday, the country’s latest batch of wonder women retained their FIVB World Cup crown with a game to spare following a victory over Serbia in Osaka, Japan. On Sunday, Lang Ping’s squad capped its all-conquering campaign by routing Argentina in straight sets to complete a sensational 11-match clean sweep of the round-robin tournament.

It was China’s fifth World Cup triumph (adding to victories in 1981, 1985, 2003 and 2015) and a 10th title in total (including three Olympic and two world championship golds) across the sport’s three major competitions.

Coinciding neatly with the nation’s imminent 70th birthday celebrations, the win prompted an outpouring of pride on Chinese social media, with related topics viewed over 940 million times on Weibo by Sunday afternoon.

“This year is the 70th anniversary of the founding of our country. The best we can do is to pay back our nation, which has given so much to our team,” said Lang, the first person to win Olympic volleyball gold both as a player and a coach.

“As long as we have the chance, we will try our best to win the game, making sure to raise the national flag and play the national anthem at the stadium.”

Even before Saturday’s glorious scenes, Lang’s patriotic rallying calls had caught the imagination of fans.

“Every time we pull on our team jersey, we fight for the same goal: to see our national flag raised to our national anthem (at the medal ceremony),” she said after the first-round victory over South Korea earlier this month.

It was a sentiment that perfectly summed up Team China’s unwavering will and determination, and it was no surprise that the clip had been viewed over 150 million times online at the time of writing.

Never-say-die spirit

Team’s China’s winning spirit can be traced back decades, to the time when a young Lang captivated the nation with her gritty performances on the court in the early 1980s.

That never-say-die attitude was in evidence again at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when China-without injured star player Zhao Ruirui-recovered from two sets down to edge Russia for gold, and at the 2016 Rio Games when China shook off a slow start to defeat Serbia 3-1 in the final for its third Olympic gold.

“Never giving up, especially in adversity. I think that’s what the spirit of Chinese women’s volleyball means,” Lang said in Rio.

These days, Lang continues to instill the same work ethic in her latest charges.

With the World Cup staged across five Japanese cities, every nation faced a hectic schedule. But as many teams rested on traveling days, China’s squad was cramming in extra training sessions. For example, after landing in Osaka at 2:30 pm on Wednesday, the Chinese players remarkably showed up at Maruzen Intec Arena at 4 pm to practice.

Each team was allocated 90 minutes for training in the competition arena. That wasn’t nearly enough in the eyes of perfectionist Lang, prompting team officials to negotiate with the organizing committee to use time given up by other teams, or else rent a court in another arena.

“The spirit of Chinese volleyball comes from every minute, every play, every day of training,” said captain Zhu.

And even every member of the backroom team too, it seems.

Supporting the players at the World Cup was a 16-strong team comprised of coaches, analysts, a doctor and a therapist.

One of those was Lai Yawen, who on top of juggling her responsibilities as vice-director of China’s Volleyball Management Center and as an assistant coach, performed chores like buying players their favorite yoghurts.

During Rio 2016, assistant coach Yuan Lingxi headed for the arena at 6 am every day to film matches and would return to the Olympic Village at 2 am, when he would immediately begin analyzing opponents and filing reports.

“There are those who appear in front of the public and those who contribute behind the scenes, and we are the latter ones,” said Wei Yongji, who, apart from a brief hiatus at the turn of the century, has been the squad’s doctor since 1993.

There are many Lais, Yuans and Weis that are generally not known by the public but who are indispensable for Chinese volleyball to maintain such high standards.

Tokyo calling

Next on the team’s agenda is the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“There’s still a good period of time before the Tokyo Games next year, so we still have time to analyze what we have learned at the World Cup,” coach Lang said.

“There are still many aspects for us to improve. We have to refine our skills in training. The Olympics is a very special tournament, and we will face even stronger rivals then. The Italian squad and some of the best players on the Serbian team did not play at this tournament, so we will prepare more comprehensively.”

China’s chances of success in Tokyo looked to have been boosted by a decreasing reliance on star spiker Zhu Ting.

Zhu was substituted on a number of occasions in Japan, with youngster Li Yingying stepping into the breach to dominate at the net.

“Li Yingying has improved pretty quickly, which is a great help to the team,” said Zhu.

Meanwhile, FIVB president Ary S. Graca is among a growing number of observers to reckon China will bag gold again in Japan next year.

“China will be in the final for sure,” the Brazilian told Xinhua on Sunday. “Each day is another day, a lot of things can happen, but I can say with 70 percent certainty that the big favorite is China.”

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