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Lang Ping's magical mystery tour


BEIJING -- Lang Ping's return journey to a hometown she barely recognizes is fast turning into a Magical Mystery Tour. Not that it's been much of a tour.

She hasn't been inside the Bird's Nest or strolled around Olympic Green. Her world revolves around the Olympic Village; to practice sessions at Beijing Normal University; to Capital Indoor Stadium in west Beijing, where her U.S. women's volleyball team won its quarterfinal match against Italy (20-25, 25-21, 19-25, 25-18, 15-6) just after the stroke of midnight on Wednesday morning.

There hasn't been time for anything else for 1984 Olympic gold medalist besides coaching volleyball. In all ways, this has been a business trip for the "Iron Hammer," as she was known in her days as China's star outside hitter. This time around, there's no show business, no celebrity swag and not many interviews.

The stoicism appears to be paying off. The U.S. women reached the semifinals of the Olympic indoor volleyball tournament for the first time since 2000. Italy had won last year's World Cup and was favored to advance, but the U.S. prevailed in five sets. In what turned out to be the night's undercard, China dismantled Russia in three close sets (25-22, 26-24, 25-19) in the evening's first match. It was the earliest exit for a Russian or Soviet women's volleyball team from the Olympic tournament.

For its part, Italy hadn't lost to the U.S. since '04 and had won all five head-to-head matches since Athens. There was no reason before the match to expect anything different to happen this evening.

"We didn't think the USA team could be so strong," said Italy middle blocker Martina Guiggi. The Italians were mystified by the sudden turnaround of the Americans in the fourth set. Italy was up two sets to one, but the U.S. raced out to an 8-0 lead and never led by less than five points through the fourth, setting up a decisive fifth-set battle.

The U.S. won the first five points. The momentum shift was complete. The Americans raced through the set 15-6 to set up a rematch with Cuba, which beat the U.S. in pool play last week. "I'm very proud of [the U.S. team]," Lang said afterward. "They always surprise me."

The Americans were led by Logan Tom's 19 points, followed by Danielle Scott-Arruda and Tayyiba Haneef-Park, who had 17 each. The U.S. sealed the win on a Heather Bown spike, and afterward the team huddled at center court and spent several minutes hugging. They took a team picture and celebrated as though they had just clinched the gold. But two very tough matches remain.

Should the U.S. beat Cuba to reach the gold-medal match, the Americans will play the winner of the China-Brazil semifinal. It's too soon to anticipate a rematch of the "Peaceful War" (as the Chinese media has dubbed it) between Lang and her protégé and now head coach for China, Chen Zhonghe, in the gold- or bronze-medal matches. But it would be a popular ticket in Beijing, where Lang continues to receive warm crowd support wherever she goes.

Strategy sessions for the Cuba match begin early Wednesday morning. But for Lang, the most famous Chinese athlete in Beijing not wearing a Team China uniform, Tuesday was enough to give her cause to celebrate. Or at least, exhale.

"I want to take a 10-minute break, just relax a little bit," she said with a smile. Ten minutes. That's all the Iron Hammer would allow herself. Then it was back to work to watch video, to strategize, to see whether the magical ride of the U.S. team and its famous Chinese coach might extend all the way to the gold-medal match.