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Life's a Beach for Bikini Boomers
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Four years ago, when 13-year-old Xue Chen put on the bikini for her first beach volleyball training, she was uneasy and shy.

Now the young sensation and her partner Zhang Xi are calling for more fans to watch them in action - bikinis and all.

"I remembered the first time when I was asked to put on the bikini. I was at a loss as what to do. I dare not stretch my arms during the training and competition," smiled Zhang after her finals win over a Japanese pair at the Doha Asian Games. It was the teenager duo's Games debut.

Doha people are conservative because of the Muslim religion but the final saw a sell-out, with a big number of local fans.

"Although it was the first time at the Asian Games, we have no pressure at all. We did not expect there are so many people coming to support us. There are even lots of local people cheering our victories," she said. "The feeling was great. The more people that come, the more confident and excited we are."

Her partner Zhang, four years senior, was also delighted and said they will put on an even better performance on home soil and sand. "There are not so many beach volleyball competitions in China. We hope to have more chances to compete on home soil and show ourselves to the Chinese people," she said.

"To us, the 2008 Beijing Olympics is the best stage for us."

Last year, the wildcard pair took the Shanghai by storm and became the youngest ever champions of the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour. After adding the Thailand Open title to the Shanghai victory, the duo, playing together for only a year, moved from nowhere to world No 3.

"We match each other very well. Xue is taller and will stand in the net to block the ball. I will be more focused on how to save the ball and pass the ball to her.

"After every ball, we will exchange gestures and looks. We know each other's moves very well," said Zhang.

Standing 1.83m and 1.90m respectively, Zhang and Xue often pass as models when they walk on the street.

"People turn their heads and stare at us. We have got used to it. I think the sport boosts the athletes' confidence," said a slim-built Xue.

"At first, it was not comfortable to train under the sun for such a long time. But we began to enjoy the sun, beach and sea. And the competition around the world is also a wonderful travelling experience. The beach volleyball venues are always beautiful," Zhang said.

To be the best

Brimmed with talents and determination, the two are following in the footsteps of China's world No 2 pair Tian Jia and Wang Jie.

Tian/Wang, also the defending Asian Games champions, were beaten by Xue/Zhang in the semis.

The two pairs' performances won high praises from the head coach, who believes both have the ability to challenge the world's top players. "The Asian Games made them mentally strong. It is beneficial to the preparation for the Beijing Olympics," said coach Miao Zhihong. "The younger pair had ups and downs on the way to win the title. It is common for them. They have learned a lot as how to adapt themselves."

Asked about the possibilities to win gold in 2008, Miao said the players needed to further improve their skills and become mentally tough under different conditions.

"We will send them to compete more tournaments, to gain more experiences," he said. "Compared to the top players from Brazil and USA, we still have to do more work on the transition ability.

"Besides, everything will happen at the knockout stage of the Olympic Games after the group matches. It is a key factor for our players as how to keep stable and composure when lagging behind."

(China Daily December 14, 2006)

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