Americans Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor chose beach volleyball because it was their passion. But China's Tian Jia chose it because she felt she had to.
"With my height, I found myself having little opportunity to realize my dream of representing China in indoor volleyball at the Olympics, so I went for something fresh," said the 27-year-old Tian, who won China's first-ever beach volleyball silver medal yesterday with partner Wang Jie in the team's third Olympics.
"I really love volleyball and I needed a way to climb up the national team ladder," Tian recalled.
As the sport swept through North America, South America and Europe following its Olympic debut in Atlanta 1996, Chinese coaches had a hard time adapting their players' indoor skills to the outdoor setting of the beach.
Tian started as an indoor volleyball player when she was 14. But as height and strength started becoming the most important attributes of women's volleyball players, she found it hard to make an impression.
So when China decided to build a beach volleyball national team out of its large pool of young volleyball players in 1998, Tian was determined to break into the new sport.
She became one of China's first full-time beach volleyball players, braving intense sun and rain without the convenience of a proper training base. The Spartan conditions scared off a lot of young players at first.
"We had lots of difficulty selecting players. Most of the young players preferred indoor. Training facilities for beach volleyball were very rough," said Miao Zhihong, who has been the head coach of China's beach volleyball team since the sport's inception in China.
"Sometimes, we even had to dig the cactus thorns out of our feet. We called them landmines," said the 41-year-old coach, a former beach volleyball national champion.
Two years later, Tian became the youngest player in beach volleyball competitions at the Sydney Games. Along with Zhang Jingkun, she made the maiden Olympic journey for China's beach volleyball. Her team finished 19th.
"I was such a green hand in my Olympic debut. I wasn't even near my current partner Wang Jie in her debut in Beijing. Players are much more confident," said Tian, a Tianjin native and a former member of the Chinese army.
At the Athens Games, Tian teamed up with Wang Fei. The pair played consistently in each of their pre-Olympic tournaments, but they were upset in the round of 16 and did not reach the quarterfinals.
With the Beijing Games ahead, the disappointment in Athens did not affect China's desire to excel in beach volleyball. Players like Tian were sent around the globe on the FIVB World Tour where they competed against players like Walsh/May-Treanor and Brazil's Renata Ribeiro and Talita Rocha.
Tian/Wang, ranked No 2 in the world, have finished only twice outside the top 10 of a tournament in the last two FIVB World Tour seasons. Two other Chinese pairs Xue Chen/Zhang Xi and Wang Lu/Zuo Man are also in the top 20, ranking No 4 and No 14, respectively. Xue/Zhang defeated Brazilian pair Ribeiro/Rocha to take the bronze medal yesterday.
But beach volleyball still has a long way to go to increase its numbers in China in the future. Before the Games, national coaches had fewer than 100 full-time players eligible for the Olympic lineup. Miao says much more work to be done to market the sport.
But the two medals won in Beijing are likely to attract more Chinese players and spectators. The packed stands and passionate crowds at the Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball Ground also showed the potential market in China for the sport.
Tian looked satisfied after winning her silver medal yesterday. The country's longest-serving beach volleyball star can now look forward to the next Olympics.
"If I am fit, I will try to make it," Tian said.
Source: China Daily