China's "fragile beauty" Zhao is key

BEIJING (Reuters) - Zhao Ruirui has less than happy memories of the Olympics but nothing is more important to China’s hopes of retaining their women’s volleyball crown on home soil next month than her remaining fit.

The towering 1.96-metre (6 ft 5.16 in) middle blocker, once the world’s top spiker, missed the Sydney Games through injury and was hurt only three minutes into her first game in Athens four years ago.

Her team mates went on to claim gold with victory over Russia but Zhao, now 26, faced a lonely four-year battle to recover from a fractured right shin bone and only returned to court in February.

“I was thinking of giving up ... but I carried on only for the Beijing Olympics,” she told local media in April. “Without the Olympics I would definitely have retired.”

Volleyball is hugely popular in China and tickets for the home team’s fixtures in Beijing are among the most in demand from locals.

Without Zhao and pivotal setter Feng Kun, who had also been injured, China slumped to seventh in the world.

“I am glad Zhao and Feng came back and showed they are close to getting back to their best,” coach Chen Zhonghe said after Zhao’s return in Switzerland in February.

“We can see they still play high quality volleyball, they still show motivation, determination and teamwork.”

Lang “Iron Hammer” Ping led China to their first gold with a victory over the hosts at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and is feted as one of the greatest Chinese athletes of all time.

But Zhao is now the unrivalled queen of Chinese volleyball.

The second daughter of volleyball playing parents, Zhao’s birth in 1981 in the eastern city of Nanjing cost her parents 16.32 yuan ($2.39) for a special permit to contravene China’s one child policy.

It was not long after she reached the national team at the age of 18 that she established herself as one of the world’s best attackers.

Known as the “fragile beauty” for her frequent injuries and good looks, she missed Sydney, where China finished fifth, when a torn meniscus sidelined her for six months.

She came back to lead her country to victory in the World Grand Champions Cup in 2001 and the World Cup in 2003, winning a host of personal awards such as “Most Valuable Player,” “Most Popular Player,” “Best Scorer” and “Top Spiker” along the way.

Playing through a stress fracture sustained 140 days before the Athens Games showed her determination, but her subsequent collapse in the game against the United States was the result.

The injury kept her off court for 1,430 days and despite several operations it had not fully healed until last December.

China will open their Olympic campaign against Venezuela on August 9 and, after her long struggle to get fit, nothing less than victory in the women’s final at the Capital Gymnasium on August 23 will do for Zhao.

“Only an Olympic gold medal can compensate,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney; editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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