U.S. women's volleyball team churn out victory from the heart
The Chinese press dubbed Friday's U.S.-China women's volleyball game the "peaceful war," a play on the names of Chinese coach Chen Zhonghe and U.S. coach Jenny Lang Ping, a former Chinese star. Put the "He" from Zhonghe and "Ping" together and you get "heping," which means peace.
The long-awaited match was thus "Heping Dazhan," or the peaceful war.
It seemed improbable that the Chinese fans could reach an even higher level of enthusiasm than they displayed during their country's five-set loss to Cuba two nights earlier. But with China's most famous volleyball player ever sitting on the U.S. bench, fans raised the roof at Capital Indoor Stadium.
The fans desperately pulled for a victory by host China. But despite the noise, the underdog Americans took another big step toward a possible medal by winning in five sets, (23-25, 25-22, 23-25, 25-20, 15-11).
Lang Ping had prepared her players well for this moment and had made clear that it was not a war. "The 'peaceful war,' that's silly," she told SI.com after a team practice Friday afternoon.
The U.S. caught a couple of breaks. After the game Chinese team captain Feng Kun appeared to be ill and missed the post-match press conference. Star middle blocker Zhao Ruirui did not play the middle three sets and scored just two points. Still, the Chinese had the emotion and the energy of an arena in which the lone "U-S-A!" cheers were quickly drowned out by deafening cries of "China must win!" (Zhongguo bisheng!)
Neither the Chinese team nor the crowd was counting on a U.S. team that has been all business here. When the Americans took a decisive six-point lead in the fifth set, the crowd murmurs grew. The fans knew China was out of gas.
"This isn't the first time we've played China," Lang said dryly. The Chinese press wanted more. One Chinese reporter tried to draw her into a discussion of the gold-medal competition between China and the United States, but Lang dodged the question entirely. "I have confidence in my team," she said.
Another asked Lang why she seemed so stoic when she had been such an animated player in her day. She allowed that, as a coach, her role is different.
"As a coach it's all about balance."
Balance has been an understatement. Lang Ping's return trip to her native Beijing has not been easy, and that part had nothing to do with volleyball.
Her athletes have been reeling over the murder of Todd Bachman, the father of their former teammate Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman, on Aug. 9 at the Drum Tower tourist site in Beijing.
But in their last practice before the China match, the Americans were all business, slamming spikes and running sets while teammates impersonated the Chinese players based on Lang's detailed scouting reports. Setter Lindsey Berg's cheers reverberated off the gymnasium walls at Beijing Normal University. "U-S-AAAAA, U-S-AAAAA," she shouted between practice points. Half a world away, Bachman's mother, Barbara, who was seriously wounded in the Drum Tower attack, was returning to the United States via air ambulance. Elisabeth went with her.
Lang Ping could never have imagined the difficulty her team would face here off the court, but say this for the woman who led China to its first-ever world team championship in any sport in the 1981 World Cup: She knows how to play a game of ball.
"Every match is the same to me," she said on Saturday. "No emotion involved."
On Saturday night, after the rush of the China win had finally passed, Berg, sitting next to a stoic Lang Ping, admitted that she and her teammates were still deeply affected by the events of the last week. "We have 'WIZ' written all over our bodies," she said, holding up her palms. Her fingers taped, she had written W, I and Z on the tape covering each of her three middle fingers. The team has dedicated its Olympics to the Bachman family. "All we wanted to do was fight," Berg said.
Then she started to cry.
Whatever happens in the next week, the team has justified Lang Ping's decision to coach them. The team's resilience is obvious. The experience and professionalism of the athletes: solid.
The men's team, coached by Bachman's son-in-law, Hugh McCutcheon, is undefeated in pool play. The women are 3-1 and guaranteed a quarterfinal berth. A good draw in the medal round could put the women's team in reach of a top-three finish. The men, ranked third in the world, are favored to medal as well.
For Lang Ping, the win against China was an indication that after a four-year buildup to that one preliminary round match, she could exhale. As the U.S. team bus pulled out of Capital Indoor, a stadium where she played many matches for China in her years as an athlete, she smiled and waved to passers-by. The Americans dedicated this match to Wiz and the Bachman family, but you have to believe the women won this one for Lang Ping, too.