No let up from Team China despite sizable obstacles posed by pandemic

Refreshed and raring to go after a short Spring Festival break, the Chinese women’s volleyball team began a training camp last week motivated by one clear goal-to stand on the highest podium once again at the Olympics.

Team China head coach Lang Ping admits the lack of competitive action over the last year for her players due to the pandemic is a concern ahead of the defense of their Olympic title in Tokyo this summer. [HE ZONGWEN FOR China DAILY]

A 20-member squad, including superstar Zhu Ting, have knuckled down to work at the camp in Zhangzhou, Fujian province, with conditioning their bodies and sharpening their skills the focus over the next month or so under the guidance of legendary coach Lang Ping.

“When we first formed the national team last year, we had 100 days to go before the Tokyo Olympics. All of us had great momentum. But after the Games were postponed, the 100 days became 500 days. We cannot hold the same momentum for 500 days,” said Lang, the 60-year-old great who helped Team China win gold at 2016 Rio Olympics and two consecutive World Cup titles (2015, 2019).

The year of 2020 presented unprecedented challenges to Lang’s squad. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Team China was unable to play any international tournaments last year, and has instead attempted to maintain some degree of competitiveness by training behind closed doors.

Having grown so accustomed to a hectic schedule of training and tournaments, Lang admits the prolonged period without intensive competition has not been easy to adjust to.

“We prepared our Olympic campaign from January to September last year, then the players participated in the national championships and the Super League, now we have resumed the closed training again,” Lang told Xinhua.

“It is difficult to train all the time without a competitive game to aim for. We haven’t had this scenario for a long time. We did have situations in the 1970s and 1980s, but no games in one year-it is the first time in my career.”

To keep her players’ spirits up and avoid boredom or burnout from the repetition of training sessions, Lang has added some variety to their weekly schedules by organizing activities such as basketball, soccer, badminton and table tennis.

The aim, Lang explained, is simply to let the players have fun. “Although these are different sports, there are common characteristics that can be useful for volleyball,” she added.

Keeping tabs on rivals around the world has also been problematic, if not impossible, adding extra layers of uncertainty and difficulty to China’s defense of its gold medal in Tokyo.

“We were used to identifying weaknesses through playing games, but now that’s hard to do without real tests,” Lang said.

“Ideally, we need to study our opponents’ match reports. We can’t make corresponding tactical changes just by watching videos from 2019.

“Teams like Brazil and the US maintain a very high standard. And the European teams are improving fast. Italy and Serbia, for example, had very young teams in 2016, but after four or five years they have matured and begun to peak.

“So in Tokyo, I believe five to six teams have the potential to win gold. We can only know the final result based on our actual performance at that time.

“Under anti-pandemic protocols, I hope our team can play one or two international tournaments to better prepare for the Olympics. Otherwise, I hope to see our fans cheering for us on the court as soon as possible!”

Undoubtedly Team China’s biggest star is the 26-year-old Zhu. After winning gold and being awarded the MVP at the Rio Games, Zhu joined Turkish club VakifBank to become one of the world’s highest-paid volleyball players. She won a host of major honors in Europe before returning to China to play for Tianjin in 2019.

Lang is confident Zhu can once again wow the world on the biggest stage this summer.

“She never acknowledges she is a genius,” said Lang. “But I think her body coordination, her ability to read games and her technique all make her a perfect player for volleyball. It’s very rare.

“Tokyo 2020 is a challenge for Zhu, because every team is familiar with her and has specific tactics, but I still expect that she can manage to pursue excellence. I also hope her teammates can improve fast.”

The feeling of trust and respect between the coach and the players is mutual.

“I think coach Lang is a person with magic, and she’s super serious in regard to volleyball. Why? Because every time when we have problems we can always go to her and find a solution,” Zhu told Xinhua.

“As long as coach Lang is here with us, I feel at ease. Lang has many injuries herself, but she’s always there talking to us at each training session. I know it’s painful for her due to the injuries, but she always shows the best of herself in front of us. She always encourages us.”

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