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Curlers reversing sliding fortunes

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2021-12-09 09:35
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National squad's rebuild taking shape as hopefuls battle it out for Olympic spots

Curlers keep their focus on the ice during Olympic trials for China's national team at Erqi Locomotive Factory in Beijing. China has qualified automatically as host for all three Olympic curling medal events-men's, women's and mixed doubles. WEI XIAOHAO/CHINA DAILY

Carrying lofty expectations to rebuild international prowess on the ice, China's national curling program is counting on a combination of youth and foreign expertise to yield success at next year's Olympics and beyond.

With international competitions and overseas training trips out of the question due to the COVID-19 pandemic, China's national curling teams have refused to be deterred from their mission of restoring past glories less than two months out from the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

Their unremitting endeavors are being vindicated at ongoing Olympic trials-a six-leg domestic series where two teams of Winter Games hopefuls are taking on two challenger squads comprising veterans and former international players.

The Olympic hopefuls will be ranked after every two legs, with the top-ranked athlete at the end in each of the four positions-lead, second, vice and skip-and one reserve to form the men's and women's squads for Beijing 2022.

The trial competitions take place on a weekly basis, alternating between the national training camp base at west Beijing's Shougang Industrial Park and the challengers' training center at Erqi Locomotive Factory in the city's southern suburbs, to emulate a home-and-away format.

The series, which this week heads into its third leg, provides the Olympic hopefuls-all in their early 20s-with a demanding physical test of at least two games a day, four days a week.

"At a time when we need real-competition drills the most, this is the best way we could come up with to give our young teams the necessary tests and evaluation that regular training sessions can't," national team manager Yu Haijuan told China Daily last week at the second leg of the trials.

"The quality of the challengers, selected from over 100 veterans, is quite high, and they should be good enough to push the younger generation to their limits as 'imaginary rivals' in the trials.

"Once we get the best-performing curlers in each position when the series concludes, we will put them through more drills, specifically to build chemistry, and gel our best players into competitive teams for the Olympic tournaments."

China's current women's team skip Han Yu described the trials as a steep learning curve in a sport dubbed "chess on ice".

"A competition like this that offers open and equal chances for everybody to go for the Olympic spots works pretty well to focus my mind tactically," said Han, 21, who made her international debut at the world championships in May in Canada.

"The arrangement of having to shift between two venues also gives us a feel for adapting to different ice conditions, lighting and acoustics within the building, which all make a difference in this sport of concentration," she added.

Expert input

China's women's head coach Marco Mariani of Italy says young skip Han Yu is well-equipped to lead the host's challenge at next year's Olympic Games. WEI XIAOHAO/CHINA DAILY

As a century-old sport originating in Scotland, curling enjoyed an initial burst in popularity in China a decade ago thanks to the women's team's world championship triumph in 2009 and its bronze-medal finish at the Vancouver Winter Games a year later.

However, a lack of training facilities and coaching expertise at home took a toll on the national program's talent development, following the retirement of the 2010 Olympic team, until Beijing's successful bid for the 2022 Games revived efforts to promote and nurture the sport.

With the host keen to return to curling's top echelons, China hired Sweden's three-time world champion skip Peja Lindholm and Italian guru Marco Mariani in 2019 to guide its men's and women's teams, with Lindholm also installed as head coach of the entire program.

A world champion with Sweden in 1997, 2001 and 2004, Lindholm coached his compatriots to a gold medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games in South Korea to cement his status as an icon of the sport.

Having worked with China's young players for over two years, the 51-year-old has high hopes for his charges.

"To me the performance is more important than the result at the world championships," he told ahead of the women's worlds in May.

Lindholm reckons playing on home ice will be a big factor at the Beijing Games, spurring on China's young curlers to do their country proud.

"I do feel an advantage being the host at the Olympics and also some pressure," he said.

"But I think the pressure is good because that motivates us even more and also makes sure we work carefully with all details in the preparations. Historically all hosts at the Olympics have benefits and I think China will also have that."

Mainly in charge of the women's team, Mariani, who was a sweeper at the 2006 Turin Olympics in his home country, said China's future in the sport lies with the talents who will mature at Beijing 2022.

"We have good players, we trust our way for curling, and we pushed them a lot on the physical performance, not just curling skills," he said after the world championships, where Team China, skipped by Han, finished 10th overall with commendable round-robin wins against heavyweights like Sweden.

"Han has both of those elements taken care of. She is a very good player, and will lead our team to be ready for the Olympic challenge."

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