When the superstar of the American women’s volleyball team goes out in public, team members sometimes have to form a protective ring around her. Fans will frame self-portraits carefully so she is in the background, mothers will hold out their children to her, crowds hope merely to touch her.
She is the so-called “Iron Hammer,” winner of four world titles, and considered by some to the best women’s volleyball player in the history of the game.
She is the coach, “Jenny” Lang Ping, and along with gymnast Shawn Johnson’s coach, Chow Liang, she is one of two former Chinese sports stars who have returned to their birthplace under an American flag.
Recently, China would have liked to have had them back. Lang’s US team defeated her native team in a five-set preliminary-round match watched by Chinese President Hu Jintao Friday. Earlier that day, Chow’s pupil came back from 0.45 points behind on the final rotation of the women’s all-around event to top Chinese Yang Yilin for silver.
For both, the return home has been at turns strange and gratifying. Chow has not been back since he left in 1991 to study English at the University of Iowa. “There are such big improvements,” he says. “It is such a beautiful city.”
Lang has been back more often, but she admits she still needs a GPS to know where she is now. Her players can just follow the crowds.
Davis has been stampeded by journalists and adoring well-wishers trying to get to her coach. When the US team came to China for an event in Ningbo in 2005 with Lang as their new coach, some tickets for the US-China match sold for $180. During the match, fans cheered, “Lang Ping, I love you!”
“It’s more than just sports, she’s a historical figure,” Davis says.
Obliquely, Lang admits as much. When she led her team to the World Cup title in 1981, it expanded the Chinese people’s sense of what was possible. A nation of badminton and table-tennis players had beaten the world at one of its own sports.
“Since then, the Chinese people think we can do well in everything – not just sports,” says Lang.
For a woman who, at 6 feet tall, already stands out, the adoration became overwhelming. After retiring, she went to the University of New Mexico.
“I went to the US because I wanted to taste a normal life,” she says. “It’s pretty tiring to stay in your room all the time. You can’t even go to a movie.”
When Chow went to the United States, his family thought he was crazy.
“Gymnasts in China are like football players” in the US, he says.
He had become co-captain of the Chinese team by 1990. But he sensed that he had progressed as far as he could in Chinese gymnastics, so he took a full scholarship to Iowa. At first, he was not sure he had made the right decision.
“I almost wanted to go back because of culture shock,” he laughs.
He laughs often, a self-effacing smile that is easy to see reflected in Johnson herself. She is his baby almost as much as Chow and his wife, Zhuang Liwen, are a sort of second set of parents to Johnson.
He eventually opened a gym in Des Moines, Iowa, hoping to “get [gymnasts] young, so I can do it my own way and don’t have to fix someone else’s technique,” he says.
Johnson is his first star student: “She is the program.”
“He is the best coach ever,” she responds, less as a statement of fact than affection.
Four years ago, when Johnson won her first national title on balance beam, Zhuang couldn’t be there. Chow recalls Johnson turning to him and saying: “Chow, this is for Li.”
Chow is now a US citizen. Lang has been the US coach for four years. Before that, she spent two years coaching the Chinese women’s team, winning silver at the Atlanta Games, and six years coaching women’s professional volleyball in Italy, where she was named coach of the year more than once.
At the Capital Gymnasium, even President Hu would have to acknowledge she was coach of the night – and she did it with the same focus she had as a player.
American outside hitter Logan Tom, however, imagines what her coach must have felt when she received the biggest pre-match cheer of all.
“She loves China, so I’m sure she’s torn,” says Tom, who plays her professional volleyball for Dinamo Moscow. “But she also knows she’s our coach, and she’s done a good job of not mixing the two.”