For Zhang Yining, a "young veteran"in the star-studded Chinese table tennis team, Sunday turned out to be a perfect day.
She not only clinched her second gold from the table tennis tournament of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, but also found out that it was actually the historic 100th gold for China at the summer Olympic Games.
What's more important, it was an Olympic gold for the women's singles, which fully vindicated Zhang's top position in the world singles rankings.
"Winning an Olympic gold is something really really hard, and it costs an athlete so much both physically and mentally to become an Olympic champion. You must stand all kinds of setbacks and frustrations to go this far," said Zhang Sunday afternoon after the awarding ceremony.
Only those who were familiar with Zhang's experiences in the past few years could taste the sweet and sour in her words.
A native of Beijing, capital of China, Zhang, born on October 5,1982, started to play table tennis at the age of six. She gained an early fame in 1999 when she became runner-up for the women's singles at the 45th Table Tennis World Championships, only losing the final to teammate Wang Nan.
However, no one expected that this loss to Wang, an Olympic double champion winning both the singles and doubles in Sydney 2000, was just the beginning of a chain of losses for Zhang in major domestic and international tournaments.
Wang not only beat Zhang again in the singles final at China's 9th National Games in 2001, but also denied Zhang a chance to win the singles at the 46th World Championships.
What upset Zhang more was the fact that she always took an early lead, sometimes even by two 21-point sets, before the more experienced Wang staged a comeback and stole away her victory.
"I did feel upset in the ebbs of my career, but I love my career so much that I have never thought of giving up. I owe my success today to a firm faith in myself and a positive attitude toward life," said Zhang.
Zhang was given a good opportunity to overtake Wang in late 2002, as the latter, a four-gold winner at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, failed to defend any of her titles in team, singles, doubles and mixed doubles at the Busan Asiad and fell to the lowest point of her career.
After seizing the Asian Games singles title from Wang, Zhang went on to take the singles titles at women's World Cup and pro tour finals of the year, taking over Wang's top position in the singles rankings at yearend.
But Wang struck back very quickly. In 2003, Wang not only defeated Zhang once again to be crowned world singles champion forthe third time in a row at the Paris World Championships, but alsotook back the women's World Cup and the top ranking from Zhang.
Therefore, when Zhang was back to the world No.1 position earlier this year, she knew quite clear that she would need something more than the rankings to prove herself, something like an Olympic gold.
And she made it. Sweeping two golds in three days in Athens, she has become one of the three most successful Olympians among the Chinese women paddlers, along with Deng Yaping and Wang Nan, who have pocketed four and three Olympic golds respectively.
"It was lucky that I won the Olympic golds here. It is just like penetrating a thin paper on the window, and all of a sudden you see the light again," said Zhang in a calm voice.
Cai Zhenhua, head coach of the Chinese table tennis team, said that "Zhang has fully displayed her capability to be the new leader of the Chinese women's team."
Cai's words have partly verified allegations that the 26-year-old Wang Nan is already considering retirement after the Athens Games.
And Zhang pledged Sunday that she would try her best to become a team leader as good as predecessors Deng and Wang.
"My next goal is not to win more golds or titles, those are just the superficial things," said Zhang at the press conference. "Now I aim at improving my capabilities in an all-around way, shouldering more responsibilities and becoming a good, competent leader of the women's team."
(Xinhua News Agency August 23, 2004)