“Jenny” Lang Ping: a legendary wanderer between worlds
Friday's World Grand Prix match appears to be tailor-made for the enigmatic “Jenny” Lang Ping. The opening game of her team's campaign sees China take on Olympic champions Brazil. Perhaps the most famous volleyball coach in the history of the game takes on the best team in the world.
The best team of the moment, that is. After all, 53-year-old Lang Ping has her sights set on guiding her native China back to the top of the world rankings – by the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro at the latest, but preferably as early as the FIVB Women’s World Championship in Italy, which gets underway in two months.
Lang Ping won the World Championship (1982) and Olympic gold (1984) as a player with the Chinese team. Her nickname back then was the “Iron Hammer” and she was symbolic of China’s return to the sporting world map after the cultural revolution. “She is more of a historical figure, more of a sports figure. I mean, she’s in the history books,” US volleyball player Nicole Davis once said in an interview. When it comes to sport, the USA have no one even approaching the scale of her popularity in her country – not even global star Michael Jordan. Her marriage in the 1980s was broadcast on TV in China, stadiums are named after her, and stamps have borne her image.
Her parents – father a policeman, mother a hotel employee – actually wanted their daughter to become a doctor. However, the tall young lady turned her hand to sport and went on to become one of the most famous people in a land of over a billion inhabitants. Lang Ping is idolised in China. Practically every child knows who she is. Even today, the coach is far more popular than the players in her team. And that can sometimes be a burden when you are constantly recognised and approached on the street. That was the case during her first spell in charge of the Chinese national team from 1995 to 1998, when she guided China to silver at the Olympics (1996) and World Championship silver (1998).
“In China, people will remember me forever because of what I represented for the country. But I needed something else,” she once said. And so it was that her search for normality took her to Italy, where she coached in the professional league, winning titles and being named Coach of the Year on several occasions. In 2005, the “wanderer between worlds” did what for many years had been unthinkable: she took over at the helm of the USA national team and changed her name to “Jenny”. Because she knew just how sensitive this move was, she asked her Chinese fans on her website before committing. The majority were proud of their hero, who was much sought-after in the USA too, and backed her spectacular decision.
Her four years as the US coach came to a head at the 2008 Olympic Games in Lang Ping’s birthplace, Beijing. Her USA team defeated hosts China in five sets on their way out of the group stage, and went on to claim silver after a final defeat to Brazil. Lang Ping resigned from her post after the tournament – but received extraordinary praise from USA Volleyball Chief Executive Doug Beal: “We are so very lucky to have had her these past four years, not only for her qualities as a coach, but also for being such a great leader and role model.”
Lang Ping called those four years “a very challenging job with the many differences in system and culture compared to the Chinese system.” The wanderer between worlds then decided to return to her roots. She was once again named coach of the Chinese national team. “After fourteen years, I am very honoured to be the head coach of the Chinese Women’s Volleyball team again,” she said. “China’s women’s volleyball team is loved deeply by the Chinese people and has claimed many glories in the past. Chinese volleyball is facing a lot of difficulties and we have a lot of things to do. I believe volleyball is a collective sport, relying on all those who love volleyball to overcome any difficulty and work together.”
A lot has changed within Chinese volleyball since that statement. China finished runner-up behind Brazil at the 2013 FIVB World Grand Prix. As such, there is just one more step to take for the unique story of globetrotter “Jenny” Lang Ping to come full circle. This autumn’s World Championship and the 2016 Olympics provide fine opportunities for the lady known as the “Iron Hammer” during her playing days to also win gold as a coach.