China's remarkable achievements at the Curling World Championships last month have boosted hopes of a medal from the sport at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.
The women's team took a silver medal in Canada, and the men were fourth.
"Both of the teams did a great job at the World Championships this time," said Li Dongyan, head official of China's curling team. "The results were beyond our expectations. Four years of professional training have paid off."
In the women's finals, the young Chinese team was defeated by traditional curling powerhouse and host country Canada, but still made history.
It was the Pacific region's first-ever adult world championship podium finish. It also secured China's berths for the 2010 Vancouver Games, as it is in third place overall with 18 points, behind Denmark (20) and Canada (28).
The men's team was also a surprise hit in its world championships debut. It is currently ranked 10th on the Olympic qualification list and the top 10 teams will be qualified for the Games.
Curling was introduced into China in 1995 and the country is now emerging as a contender. At the 2005 Women's Curling World Championships, China finished seventh in its debut and moved up to fifth in the 12-team event the following year.
At the 2007 Pacific Curling Championships, both the women's and men's teams took home gold medals and qualified for the 2008 World Championship.
Then 2007-08 was a breakout year, as the women's team won the World Women's round robin and the first playoff game to qualify for the final.
It finished with a 2-1 record over the Canadian team and its silver medal, coupled with Japan's fourth-place finish, marked the best Asian curling performance in curling.
This was reflected by China's world rankings jump from 12th position to ninth, ahead of Germany, Italy and Russia.
The men's Worlds debut suffered from a poor start but they qualified for the playoff round. Playoff losses culminated in a fourth-place finish, but even so the squad rose seven positions to 14th place in the men's rankings.
Li attributed the rise of Chinese curlers to athletes going abroad.
"Since curling is a new sport for China, it is not hedged in by rules and regulations. We decided to send the team abroad to train and compete with the world's top teams as soon as possible," Li said.
Since 2004, Li has led the team to train in Canada for several months a year and it also takes part in competitions there.
"There is no international standard curling rink in China, so we have to train at ice hockey rinks, which has not helped develop the sport. Then we decided to go abroad for the high-spec training facilities, as well as coaches," Li said.
"At the beginning, it was very hard to train abroad, since we didn't have enough financial support. But money from the winter sports administrative center, local teams and even the players themselves helped us accomplish something. We can say that it is worth it."
Under the current training schedule, Chinese teams compete in about 40 matches a year. Previously there was little competition, just training.
"Curling is a sport that needs to be improved by competition. The players have gained much experience," he said.
These outstanding results have encouraged the team, Li said, but officials do not have high expectations for a medal.
"The Chinese curling team is still young and the sport requires stability, focus and calm," Li said. "The players should strive for better results at their first Winter Olympics, but we won't pressurize them."
At the Asian Winter Games last year both the men's and women's teams settled for bronze medals on home soil in northeast China's Jilin Province.
"The failure to clinch gold medals was a good lesson for our teams and it will help them not to do it again at the Olympics. We will try our best to strive for good results steadily."
(China Daily May 8, 2008)