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Zhao ready to put bad luck behind her
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The number 8 is not a lucky for Zhao Ruirui. China's towering spiker was wearing the normally auspicious number when she seriously injured herself four years ago.

Now sporting jersey No 9, Zhao has come back strong and is ready to play her best during the Beijing Olympic Games.

"It is some kind of superstition, Zhao admitted. "But I just hope to leave all the bad luck behind and start this new chapter of my career."

It has been a long and frustrating period since Zhao's career-threatening injury in 2002. "The Glass Beauty", as she is known by fans and media, fractured her right shin bone and struggled with the injury for the next several years.

She appeared fit heading into the Athens Olympics and was named to the starting lineup. But she played only three minutes before limping off, having re-aggravated the injury.

Although China still won the gold that year, Zhao had to watch from the bench. She has been out of competition until she came back early last month.

"I am fit again and my fingers are crossed that the injury will never happen again," the 27-year-old said.

"What happened four years ago is still fresh in my mind. I will never forget.

"It is one of the biggest regrets of my whole life. The only thing that can make up for it is to compete in the Beijing Games and help China defend the gold medal."

Zhao has been able to stay competitive in the competitions she has played in since coming back - an encouraging sign that eases concerns about her fragile legs.

"So far I am feeling very well. There is no sign of a recurrence," Zhao said.

"I did not feel nervous at all on the court again after such a long time. I was worried whether I could still get used to the atmosphere. But once on the court, I felt so familiar with my former self, my teammates and everything.

"It did not take much time for me to feel the unity of the team again."

Lingering injuries to Zhao and other pivotal players like setter Feng Kun have caused the Chinese women to struggle since winning gold in Athens.

The returning duo invigorated the team immediately, evidenced by its second-place finish at the Swiss Volleyball Masters last month and top finishes at the FIVB Grand Prix legs in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, and Hong Kong.

"Though we lost to Cuba and failed to defend the title in the tournament, I am not frustrated at all," head coach Chen Zhonghe said after the Swiss tournament.

"I am glad Zhao and Feng came back and showed they are close to getting back to their best."

Feng was named "Best Setter" in Switzerland while Zhao ranked seventh in scoring and sixth in blocking.

"We can see they still played high-quality volleyball, they still showed motivation, determination and teamwork.

"Though not at their best, they are on track to regain their prime form."

As expected, the 1.97 m Zhao, who used to be one of the world's best spikers, is rediscovering her skills step by step.

She showed steady progress at the FIVB Grand Prix in Ningbo last month compared to her performance at the Swiss Volleyball Masters.

Competing in all three matches, Zhao was overwhelming at the net and helped China secure wins over each of its opponents, most impressively over major Olympic title contender Brazil. Zhao scored 22 points in that come-from-behind victory.

Brazil's head coach Jose Guimaraes was full of praise for Zhao and believes she increases China's chance of defending its gold medal in August.

"Zhao is the most impressive player on the court," Guimaraes said. "She is the best on the China team. She is tall and shows speed. It's very difficult to score over her block."

China continued its winning run behind Zhao in Hong Kong, with big wins over Olympic group rivals Japan and Cuba.

Despite losing to Brazil in the Macau leg last weekend, China's 8-1 record in the preliminary stage qualified it for the Grand Prix finals, which begin today in Japan.

In the Grand Prix preliminaries Zhao was ranked seventh in the scoring, first in spiking and sixth in blocking.

China's coach Chen is also pleased to see Zhao play with more confidence.

"It's very difficult to keep mentally strong after such a long injury. But I am glad to see she is playing with increasing confidence."

Chen is still waiting for Zhao to show her best stuff as his team tunes up for the Olympics, only a month away.

"I am still a distance away from my best form," Zhao said. "But I will try to improve step by step in the following competitions and trainings."

"I believe everyone will be at their best during the Beijing Games."

(China Daily July 9, 2008)

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