BEIJING --Women's volleyball in China has long been a hot ticket. The sport is regularly featured on Chinese television and the national team athletes here are household names. Chinese team captain Feng Kun starred in an Adidas ad in the run-up to the Games and middle blocker Zhao Ruirui is among China's most celebrated athletes in any sport. Add to the mix that U.S. women's volleyball coach Lang Ping is just two decades removed from a star turn on the Chinese national team.
That set up a charged atmosphere Monday at the Capital Indoor Gymnasium as the U.S. women's volleyball team met Cuba in Pool A of the Olympic round robin tournament."China isn't even competing [this afternoon] but the gym is full," said U.S. middle blocker and four-time Olympian Danielle Scott-Arruda. "[The fans] joined in with U-S-A chants and even started some of their own."
The play was closer than the final score indicates, but the Cubans swept the Americans (25-15, 26-24, 25-17) with fast serves, solid blocks and sweeping kills. Still, if the U.S. can defeat Venezuela on Wednesday, the team is almost assured a place in the eight-team elimination round. "I feel as though we didn't play USA volleyball today," said backup libero Stacy Sykora. "They were the better team today."
USA Volleyball has been on an emotional roller coaster since Saturday, when players learned of the brutal knife attack on the parents of 2004 Olympian Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman at the Drum Tower tourist spot in Beijing. Eight of Bachman's 2004 teammates are also on the 2008 team, and Bachman's husband, Hugh McCutcheon, is the head coach for the men's team. The United States Olympic Committee released a statement during the game that reported Bachman's mother, Barbara, had been upgraded from "critical" to "serious but stable." Todd Bachman, Elisabeth's father, died in the stabbing attack. A Chinese tour guide was also injured but the media has not been informed of her condition.
The mostly Chinese crowd at the arena have supported the U.S. athletes ever since they got off the plane in Beijing, no doubt in part because of Lang Ping's celebrity. It's impossible to gauge how much the Bachman's story has touched Chinese fans because the U.S. women were always going to be a crowd favorite here. But to be inside Capital Indoor Gymnasium today was to see women's professional sport played, and supported, at the highest level.
Along with matches against Venezuela and Poland (August 17), the U.S.(ranked No. 4 in the world) will meet China (No. 7) on August 15. While U.S. setter Lindsey Berg is only looking to the next match, she did her best LeBron James imitation when asked about facing the Venezuelans. "I promise you we'll get that win," Berg said.