Lang Ping (left), head coach of the Chinese women's national volleyball team, and other team members participate in the parade for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in Beijing on October 1 (XINHUA)
When 18-year-old Lang Ping made her debut as a volleyball player at the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1978 and her team won the silver for China, her fierce spiking caught people's attention. Still, no one could imagine at that time how far she would go one day, becoming a national icon who would help China's national women's volleyball team become legendary.
Lang became a star striker soon after her debut, famous for her precise and powerful spikes characterized by high jumps, brisk and forceful downward punches and varied tactics. Her hammer-like smashes earned her the nickname "Iron Hammer," making her one of the three ace spikers in the world.
The Chinese women's volleyball team made groundbreaking achievements in the 1980s, winning five major world titles successively and inspiring the nation with their unswerving spirit.
While having passed on the baton to the new generation of players, Lang still continues to be part of the national team as their head coach. On September 29, she watched the team win the gold 11-0 at the FIVB Volleyball Women's World Cup, creating a record. It was China's 10th title in a major international volleyball event for women. The others include the FIVB Volleyball Women's World Championships and the Olympic Games.
While she kept her composure during the September match, Lang could hardly hold back her tears afterward. "It was hard, but we made it step by step," she told China Central Television (CCTV).
The 1960-born has witnessed several key developments in China's history as well as being a participant in the development of Chinese women's volleyball. The year she joined the national team was also the momentous year marking the start of China's reform and opening up.
Rise of an icon
In 1979, China resumed its legitimate place on the International Olympic Committee and Chinese women won the 1979 Asian Women's Volleyball Championship for the first time, defeating Japan.
The rise of the team in the early 1980s also marked the international ascent of Chinese sports teams. Playing as the chief spiker, Lang steered it to China's first major title in volleyball at the 1981 World Cup. The team then swept the 1982 World Championship, the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the 1985 World Cup, where she was named most valuable player, the third time she received the honor.
Her coaching career has been equally successful. This is her third stint, starting in 1990. She was the coach when the team won the silver at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the second place at the 1998 World Championship in Japan and the gold at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. In 2002, she was inducted into the Volleyball Hall of Fame.
Lang attended the celebrations of the 35th founding anniversary of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1984 as a player, and this year, when the PRC celebrated its 70th anniversary, she took her place in the National Day parade as a coach.
Behind the success are some hard decisions. After retiring as a player in 1986, Lang made an unexpected choice to study English at Beijing Normal University (BNU). Then she went to the United States to continue her studies in sports management at a time when volleyball was not very popular. "I felt it necessary to make further progress instead of sitting on my laurels," she said.
One of her reasons for going to the U.S. was her 13-year-old daughter who also plays volleyball. As a mother as well as a tough athlete and a strict coach, Lang wanted to help both her daughter and volleyball develop.
Her foreign studies have given her international vision and an inclusive mind, Gao Yimin, Deputy Director of the Lang Ping Sports Culture and Policy Research Center of BNU, told Beijing Review.
Lang also worked as an assistant coach at the University of New Mexico and head coach of the Italian professional volleyball league. From 2005 to 2008, she coached the U.S. women's team, which beat China and won the silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
"I cared little about the result at that time. The experience is valuable for I can contribute to the development of volleyball in the world, which shows the power of China's sports," Lang said in a television interview.
In the new millennium, Chinese women's volleyball faced changes. After propelling the national team to gold at the 2003 World Cup and the 2004 Olympic Games, head coach Chen Zhonghe retired in 2009. Many experienced players also hung up their boots.
Lang, who had returned from the United States, was viewed as the one who could fill the vacuum. She took up the position of head coach in 2013, encouraging new-generation players. The victory of the team in the 2016 Olympic Games made her the first person to win the Olympic volleyball gold both as a player and as a coach.
The women's volleyball team has continued to be the pride of the Chinese. After the win in the FIVB Volleyball Women's World Cup this year, Lang said the result was beyond her expectations. "We were unfamiliar with our opponents. What we did was to calm down and make the utmost effort," she told CCTV.
The team has not relaxed after the victory. China will face tougher challenges at next year's Olympic Games in Tokyo. According to Lang, they need to improve their performance.
Lang Ping instructs players between matches at the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Women's World Cup in Osaka, Japan, on September 28 (XINHUA)
The fighting spirit
Next year, the team will hit the silver screen. Director Peter Ho-sun Chan's film Leap, chronicling the team's growth over 40 years, is set to be released on January 25. Chan has a personal stake in the story, having watched Lang's first appearance at the 1978 Asian Games. He was 16 at that time and remembers lustily cheering the team on.
"They fight to the finish, no matter whether they win or fail. That is why the Chinese women's national volleyball team can always touch and inspire us," he said at a press conference.
Lang describes the unswerving spirit of the Chinese women's volleyball team, which continues to inspire and win admiration, as "never giving up" and "playing as one." "Since we are a team, we never give up and unite as one to overcome difficulties. That makes the spirit valuable for all walks of life," she wrote in People's Daily.
It also includes achieving breakthroughs and passing on good traditions, she added at a recent forum in Beijing on the spirit of the new era.
As Zhong Bingshu, President of the Capital University of Physical Education and Sports, said at the same forum, the performance of the women's volleyball team shows the merits of complementary cooperation and courage to confront failure.
The victory this year showed the power of their joint efforts and stronger mindset. "Every one of our team has advanced and we have better teamwork. It is good for us when we have more than one strong attacking points," Zhu Ting, the current lead scorer for the team, told Xinhua News Agency.
As someone who has witnessed the fall and resurgence of the team over the past decades, Lang is gratified by the progress. "The women's volleyball team spirit goes beyond success. It is the spirit that stays with you during times of adversity and keeps you going," she said.
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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