BEIJING - When Jenny Lang Ping replaced Toshi Yoshida as the head coach for the U.S. women's volleyball team following the Athens Games, China's "Iron Hammer" could not have envisioned leading the team to the gold medal game in Beijing. The U.S. faced challenges, from working around the players' international club seasons to funding problems (in China, the volleyball team gets what it wants; in the United States, resources are far more limited) to injuries and the usual roster defections.
But here they are.
The U.S. routed Cuba on Thursday, 25-20, 25-16, 25-17, in just 67 minutes to advance to the gold medal game for the first time since Lang Ping and the Chinese faced the Flo Hyman-led Americans for the 1984 Olympic gold medal.
Lang Ping has morphed from China's greatest sports superstar to an international coaching force. She took the head coaching job because her teenage daughter, Lydia, was living in the U.S. and she wanted to be closer to her after coaching Italian club ball. And most importantly, she knew China's team was back on top of the world. They didn't need her to help them anymore.
The glory days of Chinese volleyball ended after the Lang Ping era. China placed eighth at the 1994 world championships. In 1995 China reached out to the Lang Ping -- this time as a coach. Her assistant was future China head coach Chen Zhonghe. Lang Ping led the team to the gold-medal game in Atlanta before losing to Cuba in four sets. Eight years later, Chen led China to a gold in Athens.
On Thursday Cuba was unable to handle the U.S. front line of Tayyiba Haneef-Park, Logan Tom and Danielle Scott-Arruda, despite having defeated the U.S. in the preliminaries, 25-15, 26-24, 25-17. After the Cuba loss, Lang Ping got to work -- not on her players' games, but their heads.
It worked. The U.S. hasn't lost a match since.
No doubt the Cuba loss was partly the result of an emotional blow to the U.S. team. Two days before, the team was devastated by an apparently random attack on former teammate ElisabethBachman's parents at the Drum Tower tourist site in Beijing. Her father, Todd, died at the scene. Barbara Bachman underwent surgery and returned to the U.S. with her daughter via air ambulance a week later.
The team regrouped, dedicated the Games to the Bachman family, and then started to play what they call "USA Volleyball."
Now USA Volleyball has a distinctly Chinese touch. In 1984 Lang Ping was the outside hitter for the Chinese team at the Los Angeles Olympics. David Wallechinsky, the Olympic historian, wrote that as the team entered the arena for the gold medal match, Lang Ping saw a TV monitor with the U.S. coach and three players with gold medals around their necks. The Iron Hammer looked at her teammates and said "Let's pluck the medals from their necks." And then they demolished the Americans, 16-14, 15-3, 15-9. Among the vanquished that day: the United States' Sue Woodstra, now Lang Ping's assistant coach.
Two years ago, the United States women's volleyball team had lost all of its backup setters and went to the world championships in Japan, wounded and struggling. They placed ninth. Last year the team placed third in the World Cup tournament to qualify for the Olympics. That was commendable, but they didn't have to face world champion Italy or powerhouse China in that event. They came to Beijing ranked fourth in the world.
"We've come alive as a team," setter Lindsey Berg says. "It's unbelievable."
On Saturday, they play for Olympic gold.