The Southern Weekend Interview with Lang Ping

(Southern Weekend)  From Being Champion To Enjoying Volleyball.  August 21, 2008.

Older Chinese people remember the unforgettable scene at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when Lang Ping led the Chinese women's volleyball team to a 3-0 victory over the host American team to win the gold medal.  Twenty-four years later, the "Iron Hammer" Lang Ping returned to the Chinese scene with another victory -- on August 15, 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, she led the American women's volley team as their coach to a 3-2 win over the Chinese team.

Heated controversy was unavoidable afterwards.  During the 1980's when the reforms stormed in, the "spirit of the women's volleyball team" was the motivator for that generation of Chinese people.  After this new Sino-American battle, the public reactions on the traditional and Internet media were mixed.

Why did the "Iron Hammer" of China go overseas to study at the acme of her career?  What was her experience during the coaching years overseas?  Before the Beijing Olympics began, the Southern Weekend reporter had an exclusive interview with Lang Ping on June 9 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.

The U.S. women's volleyball team trains at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.  As the Olympics neared, the spirit was up.  The souvenir shop began to display Fuwa's and Chinese-language banners.  The cafeteria erected Chinese-themed decorations, and the lunch menu included chives/shrimp spring rolls, dumplings and fried noodles so that the American girls can get accustomed to the Beijing Olympics.

On the training floor for Lang Ping's American women's volleyball team, the players practiced their kills while the five-year-old boy of one of the players frolicked on the mattress nearby.  Every half hour or so, a group of about a dozen international tourists came over to watch.  The American tourist guide Lily told the tourists: the coach Jenny (=Lang Ping) is a world champion from China!  The tourists gasped in wonderment.

Before this, Lang Ping spent her final relaxed weekend before the Olympics.  She flew back to her home in Los Angeles, and took her daughter Lang Lang and her niece to watch <Kung Fu Panda>.  Afterwards she accompanied the two girls to play some beach volleyball in sunny southern California.  Then she returned to the training center.  The battle was about to begin.  Although the 47-year-old Lang Ping was relaxed inside, she still showed her vulnerability to the reporter.  As she laid down on the massage chair to soothe her muscles and chat with the reporter, she could not hide her fatigue.

In 1984, Lang Ping reached the acme of her career by winning the world championship.  Then her life underwent many changes.  First, she went from China to the United States as a graduate student.  Then she went to coach in Italy.  Then she returned to coach the Chinese national team.  Then she went to the United States to coach their national team.  She has been baptised by the sports systems in three different countries.

Q: Coach Lang, as the coach of the American women's volleyball team, do you feel that you changed American or has American changed you?
A:  The differences in culture meant that it is very different to coach an American team than a Chinese team.  The Americans think that I have injected many more Asian factors, such as being more subtle in the tactics and more rigorous in the style.  But speaking from my heart, I should think America changed me to a large degree.
American players are usually well-educated and they learn very last.  I respect their way of thinking about the problems.  The American girls are very relaxed, and the fact that they played volleyball out of personal interest has affected me.  I feel more relaxed.  They seem to enjoy the richness of life fully, and volleyball is not all they dream about.
At first, I did not understand their mindset.  I kept pushing them to play every second as if it must be end in victory.  As an outsider entering a sports culture that has a history and is accepted by the majority, I wanted to change them to play my way.  But their cultural strength was stronger than mine, and I had to change my views to understand them.  Therefore, I say that the American team has changed me.  Today, I can enjoy their relaxed attitude.  Just as the strength of a wired spring comes from its ability to maintain a soft flexibility, I must say that the free-spirited nature of the American girls results in greater creativity and imagination.

Q: What did you learn as the American team coach?
A: The science of training is stronger outside China.  They emphasize detailed analysis of physiology, such as how to adjust a certain body muscle and the number of calories required to sustain certain sports activities.  They are more precise and detailed, and they give me more ideas.
As for attitude, the American advantage lies in being relaxed.  Our goals in sport competition in China emphasize victories while defeats are unacceptable.  This creates excessive nervousness.  But American culture puts the emphasis on participation and whether you have done your best.  If you perform up to your ability and potential, then you are the winner and you will be recognized.  You do not have to back yourself into a corner.  They can deal with the game outcomes more easily; if they lose, they will just move on and try again.

Q: Did you accept these ideas immediately, or did you take time to adjust?
A: When I first took over the American team, I must say frankly that I could not accept it.  In China, the coach has a lot of authority and the team is very regimented.  All the training procedures are guaranteed to be in place.  But things are completely different in America.  They emphasize personal interests, and therefore they are more free and less cohesive.  Even for the Olympics, it was hard for me to assemble the entire team together to train -- they train in their own states, they have their own schedules and you cannot easily move them according to your plan.
This is just two months before the Olympics, and my team members are not together yet.  One key member has to undergo surgery and will not be available for the Olympics.  Two other key members are injured, and I don't know if they can play.  Oh, I am worried.  The practical conditions forced me to give up the habit of relying on the plan and it tests my skill at adjusting the training based upon the change in team composition.  You cannot expect to be able to think through everything.  The actual situation can change at any time, and you cannot decide until the last minute.
We have gone through a long period of coming together.  They have their own ideas and they emphasize their conditioning.  When I criticize them for not playing to their potential in games, they usually respond by saying that they are "not in shape."  This is somewhat distressing.  In China, you cannot use the excuse of "not being in shape" for a lousy performance.  You are not allowed to relax because the eyes of the nation are watching you.  The honor of the state needs your success to sustain, and you cannot be emotional as if you please.

Q: Prior to the United States, you coached in the Italian professional league for six years.
A: Volleyball is different in Italy than the United States.  In Italy, volleyball is a professional sport.  The responsibilities and duties of the players and the coach are clearly understood.  Everybody knows that, and they respect the commercial contract.  In Italy, the pressure is mainly commercial in nature.  The coach is just another worker who has to obey the boss.  Sometimes, this can be very tiresome.  Commercial interests are cold and inhumane.  You must adapt.  But my daughter was in the United States at the time and I wanted to be with her.  So I left Italy.

Q: So your personally experienced three different sport systems.
A: China, Italy and the United States represent three different sport systems.  It is hard to say which one is better, because they all have their own advantages and disadvantages.  The key is about what you want.  If you want a relaxed model with the freedom to express your interests and enjoy volleyball, the American system is the best for you.  If you want to train by playing in a competitive league, then the Italian system is best for training.  If you want to get a world championship, the Chinese system is better because the financing, manpower and timing are better guaranteed.

Q. On the afternoon of April 9, I was at the scene of the Olympic torch relay in San Francisco.  Unfortunately, I waited a long time without ever seeing you carrying the torch.  I found out later from television that the route was changed at the last minute due to safety concerns.
A: Yes, many people were concerned about my safety when I went to carry the torch in San Francisco.  Apart from friends and relatives, the person most concerned was the chairman of the United States Volleyball Association.  He called me daily.  Before I flew to San Francisco, he even told me that I could give up my position for safety reasons.  But I was very calm.  How can a Chinese person give up her right?  I told him not to worry.   If someone should try to grab my torch, they should know who I am!  "The Iron Hammer"!  I will strike him down with my torch!
When I got to San Francisco, I found out that the torchbearers were all very enthusiastic.  Even an 80-something-year-old did not give up her position and I have much stronger than her.  Many Chinese friends showed up San Francisco to support me.  But the route was changed at the last minute.  I ran the 37th leg and I did not see a single friend.  That leg was on the roadway leading up to the Golden Gate Bridge.  The sight was very pretty, with eight helicopters in the sky and motor boats in the bay.  This was presidential treatment!  When I got home, my daughter Lang Lang took the torch that I brought home and asked me whether she can show it at school.  I refused, because I was afraid that she wouldn't be able to bring it back.

Q: You seem to be the only woman among elite volleyball coaches in the world.  Have you ever felt vulnerable?
A: When I attend international meetings, I look around and I see that I am the only woman.  I am usually at the eye of the storm.  I have to get used to this solitude.  But I feel that the men respect me, they give me a lot of encouragement and they feel that I don't have it easy.  As a perpetually busy mother who doesn't have enough time for my daughter, I feel vulnerable.

Q: When the earthquake occurred in Sichuan, did you have strong feelings from America?
A: On May 12, I got on the Internet at the office and I read that there was a strong earthquake in Sichuan.  I read that Premier Wen Jiabao personally went to the disaster zone.  A sixty-something-year-old man went to help with the young people.  I was very moved.  I thought about what Zhou Suhong wrote on her blog: When disaster strikes, we don't have a choice but we can choose how we deal with the disaster.  There are very few Chinese in the state of Colorado, so it is hard to do anything.  I called my friends in Los Angeles and Denver and I learned that the Chinese there were organizing donation campaigns.  I told them to count me in.  I called another old friend and I asked her whether the Chinese Volleyball Association was organizing a donation campaign.  She contacted the director and said that they have a donation campaign.  I sent in my donation immediately.  The money was not much, but it represented my feelings.

Q: I heard that you wanted to establish the Lang Ping Foundation.  What motivated you to use a foundation to assist the injured volleyball players in China?
A: I have always thought about setting up a Lang Ping Foundation.  Last year, I arranged for the Chinese women's volleyball team second setter Feng Hun and hitter Zhao Ruirui to have surgery in the Untied States.  I realized that the United States are advanced and unique in sports medicine.  There are quite a few current and retired athletes who require this type of assistance.  The Chinese volleyball players such as Zhang Yongfeng and Sun Pufeng are also suffering from ailments.  If I can use my influence to raise money and help these injured athletes to improve their quality of life, it would be a good thing.  After all, I was an athlete who trained and played hard and I did not receive timely and effective treatment.  I went through eight knee operations, and three years ago I underwent an cervical operation.  After a dozen operations, the "iron hammer" has become the "paper hammer."
It is not easy to raise money for the foundation.  I can do this gradually.  After the Olympics, I will have more time.  I will work hard to raise money to help the injured athletes.

Q: In the spring of 1987, why did you leave China to study in American at the prime of your career?
A: At the time, I was the focus of attention in China.  We can understand why people wanted to impose the honor of the nation on us athletes.  But I wanted to live the life of an ordinary person.  At the time, I could not go anywhere.  I was too tall and I could not hide myself.  I cannot go to any public place or watch a movie.  I was tired of sitting in my room every day.  I wanted to find myself.  I wanted some place where I can put aside the radiant aura.  Volleyball is not very popular in the United States, and I may be able to live a normal life.  SO I went to New Mexico to become a graduate student in sport administration.  I started from zero.

Q: I gathered that you daughter has started to play volleyball.  She is an American girl who grew up under American culture.  How does she differ from your era in terms of attitude and understanding?
A: There is an obvious difference.  I did not influence her to choose volleyball.  I respect her ideas, and she could freely make her own choice.  At first, she did not like volleyball.  She like liked basketball, and then she tried other sports.  She went full circle before choosing volleyball.  The influence of American culture on her is far greater than me.  She grew up in American culture and her view about volleyball is defined in terms of her interest and not out of some kind of duty.  She does not carry any mental baggage.  She has played volleyball for two years already.  I am astonished that she has persisted for so long.

Q: The consecutive championships won by the Chinese women's volleyball team inspired a generation of Chinese people.  More than two decades later, how do you regard the Olympic championship?  Has there been any change with regard to the meaning of volleyball for you personally?
A: In 1984, I was still young.  I was determined to win the championship.  At the start, I had a case of appendicitis which was unbearably painful.  But I had to withstand the pain for the sake of the championship.  After we won the championship, I underwent surgery in China.  The doctor told me that further delay could be fatal, because the appendix had swollen like a carrot.  When we lost in the preliminary round, I cried at dinner.  I felt that the championship represented the meaning of my whole life.  But the problem was that after we won the championship, life did not stop.  Life went on.  So what if you won the championship?  You still have to go on with your life.
As for the Olympics, I was definitely very enthusiastic, impressed and excited when I first went there.  Today, I feel differently.  The Olympics is just one big party which you have to treat with a normal frame of mind.  I have invested more than three decades of my life in volleyball.  Now I have finally learned to liberate myself to enjoy volleyball.  Each stage of life has its own meaning.  There is only one champion, but everyone has the right to have their own unique and rich life.

(New York Times)  Coach Finds That She Can Go Home Again.  By Juliet Macur.  August 22, 2008.

Lang Ping, the coach of the United States women・s volleyball team, tries to be a master of disguise in her home city.

She hides behind sunglasses or pulls on a floppy hat. With her team, she often exits arenas at the center of a huddle, sometimes escorted by bodyguards as people clamor to get a glimpse of her or touch the sleeve of her shirt.

A former Chinese national team volleyball star, she once wrapped all but her eyes with a scarf so she would not be recognized on a bike ride. As she pedaled down the streets of Beijing, Lang saw people point to her and cry out: :Lang Ping! Look everybody, that・s Lang Ping under that scarf!; :I can・t go out at all or do anything in public because I・m mobbed by my fans,; she said. :Once I bought something from a street vendor and everyone pointed to me: .Look, Lang Ping eat that! Take photo of Lang Ping eating that!・ Ugh, I say. Too much.; On Saturday, the 47-year-old Lang X who goes by her chosen name of Jenny in the United States X will have no place to hide. The United States team she coaches will take on Brazil for the gold medal. It will be the first appearance of the United States women in an Olympic gold medal match since 1984.

China will play Cuba for the bronze medal, an awkward ending to Olympic women・s volleyball for some Chinese.

Since the Olympics began, Chinese newspaper editorials, stories and blogs have discussed Lang・s success. One newspaper story・s headline read, :Let・s Be Proud of Lang Ping,; urging people not to consider her a traitor. Others said she had forsaken her homeland.

:She should not have turned her back on China to coach the opponents,; said Yang Lijia, 47, a fan at the United States-Cuba match on Thursday. :I am proud that she is Chinese, but if she coached for China, we would be going for the gold medal. It・s too bad about this.; Cui Dalin, the vice minister of the General Administration of Sport of China, said that the Chinese sports officials were honored that Lang was chosen to coach the Americans.

:We feel happy for her,; Cui said in an interview this spring at the Chinese Olympic Committee・s headquarters. :America・s volleyball team will be the most popular team in Beijing because of Lang Ping.; Lang insists she made the right move by taking the job in 2005. Because volleyball is not as popular in the United States as it is in China, she said, she could have a normal life as the U.S. coach, living near the United States Olympic Committee・s training center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

:I will always be Chinese, even though I wear another country・s colors,; she said. :My fans love me, so I hope they understand that.; Lang, who is nearly 6 feet 2 inches, was nicknamed Iron Hammer during her playing career because of her powerful spikes. At the 1996 Olympics, she coached the Chinese women・s team to a silver medal.

In the late 1970s and ・80s, she was the leader of a team that won four world championships and the gold medal at the 1984 Games.

In the 1980s, after the world watched Lady Diana Spencer marry Prince Charles, China watched Lang Ping marry Bai Feng, a national team handball player, in a wedding broadcast on national television. Later, her face was on postage stamps. Stadiums were named after her.

:In China, people will remember me forever because of what I represented to the country,; Lang said. :But I needed something else. I didn・t want to stay in my house for the rest of my life, hiding.; In search of normalcy, Lang coached and studied English at the University of New Mexico before returning to China to coach. She then coached in Italy before accepting her current job.

Her American players were unaware of their new coach・s fame until they took a trip to China in 2005. Lang・s photo was on a huge billboard inside the arena where they played. A group of Chinese fans waved an American flag and chanted Lang・s name.

:Mothers have thrown their children at her,; the United States volleyball player Nicole Davis said. :I don・t think there・s any parallel to that in the U.S. Not Michael Jordan. Not anything.

:She is more of a historical figure, more of a sports figure. I mean, she・s in the history books. I think that・s a beautiful thing.; Lang・s father was a policeman in Beijing; her mother was a manager in a hotel. They wanted her to be a doctor, but her athleticism got in the way. Life then was much harder than the Chinese players have it today, she said. Lang said she slept on a wooden plank. She had just three sets of clothes.

:There was nothing to be happy about or not,; she said of life under Mao Zedong. :Life was very simple and all persons were made to be the same.; In the late 1970s, athletes began venturing outside China for competitions and became ambassadors for their country. But they were not given much freedom, told by their federation exactly what to do and how to do it. They often remained in their hotel rooms, never given any money with which to explore on their own.

:It was a huge deal for us to travel, and we were really careful about everything we did because we were so scared people would just grab us and maybe take us away,; she said. Lang said the team remained on its best behavior. Everything they said had to be positive. Every action was watched and judged, they were told, by every non-Chinese.

:We were trained like that to talk the same, act in a certain way,; she said. :Our mind was less open then.; Lang received televisions or bikes for good performances, but never money, she said. Six years in a row, she was voted the best athlete in China and received the same bike each year.

Now, China・s best athletes receive cars, apartments and cash. They often travel with laptops and cellphones.

:If it wasn・t for Lang Ping, none of us would enjoy the kind of life we have,; said the Chinese tennis player Li Na, known for her shopping sprees on the road.

Lang said she could see China changing each time the team returned home. People started to dress more as individuals, even going to the hair salon for perms.

:Life had been changing little by little,; she said. :And we were the earliest to taste it and bring it home with us.; Lang now living alone in Colorado, sometimes highlights her hair and paints her nails light blue.

She is divorced and her daughter, Lydia Bai, 16, a member of the junior national volleyball team, lives in Orange County, Calif. Now, the only people who stop her on the street are from China, she said. She is glad to be back in Beijing, a star coach on a campaign for a gold medal. Her country of origin does not seem to mind, except for one caveat.

:If we are not playing China, the Chinese fans always cheer for us,; Davis said. :It・s not bad to suddenly have a billion people on your side.;