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Games' victory 'great leap forward' in rowing
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For Chinese rowing coach Zhou Qinian it was a case of too much fun.

Zhou, 55, sat unnoticed at the back of the hall as the party continued, the sixth party in two days since China won its first Olympic gold medal in the women's quadruple sculls.

"Some activities are voluntary. Some are promotional. But any promotion is great, because rowing in China can't have too much publicity," said Zhou with a smile.

A couple of days earlier, the gray-haired Zhou, who has coached China's rowers for 30 years, had almost forgotten how to smile.

Five out of six Chinese boats had lost in the finals, continuing a 24-year gold medal drought. Even Li Qin and Tian Liang, the women's double sculls pair who had not lost an international regatta since 2007, had to settle for a disappointing fourth place.

"The pressure got to them. They did not row as well as they usually do," Zhou told China Daily.

Over the course of his career, Zhou's rowers have won 23 world titles. Since 1984, they have won two silvers and two bronzes at the Olympics. But Beijing Games, they had never won a gold.

Zhou said the team had hoped to win three gold medals - in the women's pair, the women's double sculls and the women's quadruple sculls - but failed in their first two attempts.

"Li and Tian won their previous regattas too easily." he said. "As I rode my bike on the bank and watched their strokes, I was very disheartened. I thought we might get shut out again."

Olympic pressure hit rowers both young and old, according to Sir Steve Redgrave, Britain's five-time Olympic gold medalist.

"The Olympics is the worst possible pressure. It's different from the World Championships, even though you may be racing the same people over the same distance," he said. "And doing that on your home soil as well, in front of a home crowd, that just adds to the difficulty."

Zhou is no stranger to adversity. He led a team of only 11 rowers to the Seoul Olympics in 1988. He had to select his team from just 1,200 full-time rowers nationwide; even today, there are just four training facilities in China. The sport's popularity has never been great; most Chinese cannot distinguish rowing from canoeing, or even dragon boat racing.

Zhao and his team hoped a gold medal would increase the sport's visibility.

"That's why we were hungry for a great leap forward," said team leader Cao Jingwei.

On the eve of the last day of competition, Zhou met with his rowers and other team officials, but did not feel confident. It was then that he received a short message from his daughter: "We will hang on to the last minute, dad."

On the last day of Olympic rowing competition, things finally went their way. All the pressure seemed to have been consumed by the previous boats. China's last hope, the women's quadruple sculls, was relaxed and ready.

"Our rowers didn't live up to expectations in the earlier events, and that put pressure on the whole team," said the 22-year-old Jin Ziwei.

"But we succeeded in keeping our minds clear and focusing on our strokes. We are a strong team," said the Jiangxi native, who was also a member of the women's eight crew that finished just behind bronze medalist the Netherlands in Athens.

"When our last boat, the women's quad, went into the water, we actually felt less pressure. The worst that could happen was that we would have to wait another four years," Zhou said.

As he rode his bike along the shore and calculated the stroke rates of the six boats, Zhou thought the British quad, which was a three-time world champion, would tire between 1,000m and 1,200m. He hoped that would give China a chance.

"But they hung on to their speed till the last 1800m. We had only the final 250m to overtake them," he said. "I almost lost my breath."

Watching the Chinese crew finish first, Zhou became tongue-tied and could only hold his bike up and wave it like a trophy.

"After all these years as a coach, I'm glad I still have my nerves," Zhou said.

With the win, the names of Zhou's rowers were suddenly household words around China. The acclaim included generations of Chinese rowers, such as veteran Zhang Xiuyun, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who finished fourth in the women's single sculls in Beijing.

Team leader Cao is already thinking ahead.

"Perhaps we will have more boats in the final and win more medals in London," he said.

"I would love to see rowing become more popular in China, not just as an elite sport, but at all levels. With these girls winning the Olympics, that may happen," Cao said.

(China Daily August 28, 2008)

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