Chanting and crying in the lock room, running around the field with national flags over their heads, waving the gold medals to the audience, the Chinese players are celebrating their well-deserved victory to back to the top of the volleyball world after 20 years.
"This is the dream we have striven for since 2000," said Chinese team captain Feng Kun at the Athens Olympic Games on Saturday, "The competition was cruel, but at least we can enjoy the Olympic Games now."
With Zhang Yuehong smashing home the match winner, the Chinese women team, who won its last crown at the 1984 Los Angels Olympics, became the volleyball Olympic champion with a victory over Russia 28-30, 25-27, 25-20, 25-23 and 15-12.
"This was a long and tough road since China claimed the title in 1984," said Chinese head coach Chen Zhonghe with tears in his eyes, "It was 20 years since then, but not until last year did we know that we had the chance to strive for the title."
After winning the silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, China was beaten to fifth four years later in Sydney.
And the year of 2003 became the turning point for the Chinese volleyball team when it stormed to its first World Cup title in 17 years with a clean sheet finish.
Since then, expectation has been piled upon the shoulders of both the team and its head coach Chen as fans at home almost demanded an immediate return to the top of the Olympic podium where fame, fortune and recognition reside.
Standing 1.97 meters, Zhao, known as "backbone" of the team, was the MVP of 2003 World Cup.
"Zhao's injury has great impacts on us, many players even wept when they heard the news," said Chen, who himself was also much criticized for trying to play down the incident, "Zhao played a very important role. Her blocking and fast-attacking are so efficient that in some way, China team is a Zhao's team."
Her injury thus reasonably made the Chinese team play down its Athens' prospect, and even said it would only strive for a medal in the 2008 Olympics.
"We were under great pressure at that moment," explained Chen, "Zhao had been in the team for four years. She almost took part in every game China played. Middle-blocker is so important a position for our team and we rely on Zhao so much that we even could not image how we can play against high-flying attacking teams like Russia and Cuba."
When 22-year-old Zhang Ping took the position of Zhao, few people believed she could help the team to repeat the glory of the former Chinese team that had won five straight victories in the World Cup, the World Championships and the Olympics in the 1980s, or even the triumph at the 2002 World Cup.
Without Zhao, China lost to the United States at the 2004 Grand Prix in July. But Zhang, who has won the China Volleyball League twice with Tianjin Team in 2002 and 2003, has gained much confidence from the failure, and so did the team.
"Zhang Ping isn't as tall as Zhao and not as well as Zhao in blocking," said Chen, "But Zhang is a total different player from Zhao, her blitz attacks in the middle are the best in China."
"I would enlist Zhao in the Chinese squad, she will start in some matches," said Chen before China went to the Olympics, "Even she could not compete for a whole match, she is still a threat to our rivals, and even on the bench. Besides that, we had Zhang Ping and our team-work."
But China lost Zhao again to the relapse of her leg injury in the first pool match against the United States where Zhao played only two minutes. Zhang had to stand up to face the remaining matches and pressures alone.
"I am Zhang Ping and I won't try to be Zhao Ruirui second," said 1.87-meter Zhang, who is the best spiker in the 2001 Junior World Championship. "Without Zhao Ruirui on the court, we are trying to learn to play like a team."
Zhang had a total of 91 successful spikes among her 182 attempts, the best spiker with 40.66% in the Olympic tournament. And she also ranked fourth in serving with 10 aces and sixth best scorer with 144 points.
"Zhang did a great job in Athens," said Chen, "I thought she is a very good player, but her performance still went beyond my prediction."
The Chinese team, tipped by many to win the gold in Athens, was just a little too much for its opponents. The Chinese women made a 4-1 record in the round-robin round, only lost to three straight Olympic title holder Cuba 2-3.
However, China kept its clean sheet in the elimination matches, including a straight-set win over Japan in the quarterfinal and a 3-2 semi-final revenge against Cuba on Thursday.
After the semifinal victory, Liu Yanan, middle-attacker of China, was happy to tears.
"This was unbelievable," said the 23-year-old, "After beaten to fifth place in Sydney, I never dreamed to enter the final of the Olympic Games so soon, but dream comes true tonight."
And nothing but a gold medal could made these Chinese women more happy.
"This is not an easy way," said coach Chen after the match, " Both teams could win the match and we were a little lucky. But as finalists, we will try our utmost to win the gold, a silver medal is not enough for us."
Paced by the power of outside lethal Ekaterina Gamova, Russia cruised into the final with a 5-1 record, including a tremendous 3- 2 turnaround over Brazil in the semi-final.
As one of the strongest teams in the world, Russia vowed to claim the title as a sweet gift to head coach Nikolai Karpol, who said he would retire after the Athens Olympics.
And now, the 65-year-old Karpol could only celebrate his retirement with the silver.
"I have entered the Olympic finals six times as a head coach," said Karpol, "I have won two gold medals and three silvers. I believe it is the right time for me to finish my career of coaching."
And the 65-year-old famous coach lavished praises on invincible China.
"There was once upon a time that China learned a lot from former Soviet Union, but now it is the time that we have to learn from China," said Karpol, "Not only Russia, I think all the other countries in the world should learn from China."
"Russia is a legend team in the volleyball world," said Chinese coach Chen, "After so long at the top, they are still among the strongest. That is the aim we will strike for. We have returned to the top of the podium, and we want to stay on the podium."
"We won't be a flash in the pan," said Chen.
(Xinhua News Agency August 29, 2004)