You know you’re in a strange place when… people start hugging trees. After checking into the supremely fancy Crowne Plaza Hotel in Changsu, we headed outside to board the bus for practice. Suddenly on my left there came a red-headed figure bounding on all fours by the water fountain, sniffing the grass, and soon embracing a stunted tree. Good ‘ole Tom, in a surge of glee reminded us all to appreciate the lush green of plant life that had been lacking from the previous cities.
We continue to be spoiled with our hotel accommodations and such, but I’ll say that the Crowne Plaza was certainly icing on the cake. Insane. I think the only thing they're missing are personal hover crafts to float you to all of their fancy extras—like the huge pool, spa and workout areas, the threaded art gallery (I don’t know the technical term, but the work is GORGEOUS), etc. Our many sponsors are so generous!
Aside from the luxuries, we still had work to do in Changsu. The Army team that we had spent a lot of time scouting was a hearty opponent. The first match was interesting, as we were surprised to find many of their starters on the bench. Part of me was a little miffed to not be going against their best, but my mentality shifted quickly to the present and what needed to get done to win. And we did—in four sets. The next night we battled with more of their top players (though, never playing against their seasoned national team setter), and won in five.
The Army team, regardless of lineup, challenged us a lot with combination attack patterns. As blockers, it was critical to communicate the movement of Army’s middle and right side hitters, as they were always changing it up. The double quick behind is something we don’t see much of in the states. Their serving was also very effective against our passers. To counter that, we are improving a lot in our out-of-system game by making better second ball contacts and hitting smarter shots. We need to keep improving our serving consistency and pressure, as well as our passing, so we can be a three-option threat.
I am glad to say that we are improving on our intensity and competitive spirit as a whole. In the previous journal I mentioned our lack of confidence that we could come back from being behind. I see us making great strides in this area, as we are more readily embracing the urgency to make plays at the end of a set, as well as building off of each other’s good plays in order to shift the momentum our way.
So those paragraphs got a bit deep into volleyball lingo, but for you fanatics out there, I just wanted to offer some specifics to chew on.
After two nights in the land of five stars, we packed up again and bussed to Hungzao on March 27th. We left the balls alone that day, and took some time to roam the local silk street (Hungzao, apparently, is famous for its silk) and take in the sights of the city. We got a special tour of a Buddhist temple, where we were greeted by some of the monks there. They presented us with gifts that were to bring us luck.
As we continued to wander through the temple grounds, our party got bigger and bigger. People would stop to gawk at the navy clad giants tromping their stone roads—especially the familiar one in the middle who…oh my gosh….it can’t be…it is! LANG PING! Like their lives were at stake, people would sprint and hop to catch a glimpse of their volleyball hero. “Yeah,” I would nod, pretending people could understand me. “I’m with her.”
We all made it out of there unscathed and managed to catch our scheduled boat ride across the river. It was nice, but we were all starting to get sleepy. Despite the enthusiastic efforts of our tour guide with the microphone, poor Jenny let her head lean against the window for a snooze.
After the rest day, it was back to business against the Zhe Jiang club team. This team was simpler in offense compared to Tianjin and Army (less combos), but they were still very good at defense and blocking. They’re hands wouldn’t get so high above the net, but their timing was very good. Seeing a seam, we would take a shot that normally would have been a kill, but their hands would come from nowhere to deflect. In both matches we struggled with the opening set—taking too much time and errors to find our rhythm. This is something we will need to improve on for our final two matches in Nanjing.
And that’s where we are now! Four hours on the bus today brought us to our final stop before our return to Beijing. We did some shopping today in the big city of Nanjing, exploring the underground walkways of downtown with our translators. After marveling at the odd mechanical poodle and “monster” (an absurd green and white creature that, when provoked, would twitch and walk towards you), Lindsey, Angie M., Cassie, Kingki, our translator, and I indulged in manicures. Now, I’m not one who typically spoils the little nubs on the end of my fingers, but—hey—when in China…. Besides, twenty yen (about three bucks) isn’t bad for a blazing blue paint job.
We had our final banquet tonight at our Nanjing hotel where we were forced to intermix with Tuesday’s opponent. Strange delicacies spun round in the center of our table—among the favorites were the halibut, scallops, and rice. It’s always interesting to me that in China part of their beautifully presented dishes often include the head (and eyeballs) of the creature on the platter. Nothing like a lobster glaring back at you while you nibble his innards. All in all, we had a great time mingling with the Chinese team. The girls at our table thought Destinee’s obsession with rice was hilarious, and another table squealed at Nellie’s random ability to sing in Chinese.
As we enter into our final week in this far away place, people are starting to feel the ache for home. Plus, we’ve had more and more unpleasantness happening with our stomachs. A day like today—with no volleyballs or videos or meetings—is good to replenish the mind and body a bit. It’s important that we continue to de-magnify any frustrations, making sure to extract everything we can from each moment. The bigger picture is that it is a privilege and honor to stride with USA on our backs, and the only way to leave here satisfied is to know there was nothing more to give.
One final journal will come from Beijing. Until then…
On with the journey!
Tracy Stalls (Denver, Colo.)
U.S. Women's National Team Journal