August 25, 2015

BEIJING (AP) Star hurdler Liu Xiang proved to the world that his country could compete in track events when he upended the field at the 2004 Athens Olympics to win China's first-ever gold medal in athletics.

A trio of fresh-faced newcomers has gamely stepped into his shoes to show that China can contend in the field events, too.

Fully enjoying their breakout moment, Wang Jianan, Gao Xinglong and Li Jinzhe put on a show at the world championships on Tuesday for an ecstatic home crowd that screamed for every clean jump and groaned with every foul in the long jump, an event traditionally dominated by Americans and Europeans.

In the end, Wang brought China its first medal in the event, finishing third with a jump of 8.18 meters behind London Olympics champion Greg Rutherford of Britain (8.41 meters) and Fabrice Lapierre of Australia (8.24). Gao was fourth and Li fifth.

Wang, who turns 19 on Thursday, was expecting to do even better.

''On the last jump, I thought maybe I could fight for a silver, but I got a fault. I made a mistake,'' he said. ''Maybe this is because I don't have much experience.''

Although surprising to fans, the long jump performances weren't wholly unexpected within China's track and field fraternity. This has all been part of China's plan since it brought on American veteran coach Randy Huntingdon to guide its long jump team nearly two years ago.

Huntingdon previously coached Willie Banks, the former triple jump world record holder, and is perhaps best known for helping Mike Powell break the nearly 23-year-old world record in the long jump at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo. Powell still holds the world mark.

When Huntingdon arrived in China, however, he had to start with the basics.

''How to sprint. How to run,'' he said. ''How to actually create a runway and then how to execute the last six steps and the last three steps.''

And there was a mental obstacle to overcome, as well. China has never had success in the long jump before - or track in general, for that matter, with the exception of Liu's historic feat - so it took time for Huntingdon's pupils to develop the belief they could compete with the best.

''If you look at swimming and diving, or weightlifting,'' he says, the Chinese ''already understand what it is to win. In this sport, it's now learning how to win.''

If Wang, Gao and Li were lacking in confidence, it sure didn't show on Tuesday.

Wang and Gao came out and leaped 8.14 meters back-to-back on their first attempts. Li, a showman sporting red hair and a black and white arm sleeve like an NBA player, bowed down in the sand with hands clasped overhead in prayer when he, too, cleared 8 meters.

Rutherford, who knows something about the pressures of competing in front of a raucous home crowd, was impressed by how they handled the moment.

''It was very, very special for these guys to have three of them in the final,'' he said. ''For us, as jumpers, it's great to have a big crowd out there, shouting and screaming.''

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