Feature: How life can blossom after missing out on the Steel Roses

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By Sportswriters Ma Xiangfei and Shuai Cai

CHANGSHA, March 8 (Xinhua) -- If she were ten centimeters taller, Wang Hongxia could have had the chance to be written into China's sporting history as the first generation player of the country's women's national football team. Now, she finds herself the "goalkeeper" of a residential community in Hunan province.

The former goalie has worked in Niujiaotang community in Changsha for seven years, the same length of time that she spent as a footballer.

Standing at just 1.62m, Wang is of average build but short for a goalkeeper, which proved to be her undoing in her quest to join the country's national team back in the 1980s.

An agile mind and firm character, however, helped pave the way for her both as an athlete and as the head of the Niujiaotang community committee.

Niujiaotang, one of the oldest residential areas in Changsha with 800 years of history, is today a quiet, tidy community of about 10,000 residents, quite unlike what it was just seven years ago.

"Back then, most of the residents were tenants," Wang, 51, recalled. "But now the homeowners have rediscovered how convenient this place is and they have moved back."

Many of those who returned to their homes are senior citizens. Wang conducted a survey which revealed that the community now houses 3,000 people over the age of 70.

"They enjoy the convenience and company here," she said.

When Wang first arrived at Niujiaotang, the residents did not believe that this woman could do anything more significant than mediating neighborhood conflicts.

But Wang was determined to defy the existing stereotype of a community worker.

"I love challenges, perhaps because I used to be an athlete. I never give up easily," she said.

As the director of the community committee, Wang led her committee members to install accessible facilities, recruited volunteers to keep the elderly residents company and help those in need, and organized various community activities, in addition to cleaning up the area - and, of course, solving disputes between neighbors.

"This year my ambition is to install elevators in these buildings, as it is hard for seniors to climb stairs," she said.

The workload is heavy, and much of what she does is trivial and unrewarding.

Wang said she once thought about quitting, but in the end, she decided to carry on.

"I am not running away from adversity any more," she said.

Back in 1981, 13-year-old Wang was given a pair of boots and gloves to take part in a trial to be goalkeeper of Huaihua City's women's football team.

She turned out to be the only candidate who blocked all 30 shots and became the first generation of Chinese women football players.

However, her joy soon faded, as the training was arduous and painful beyond her expectations.

Grass football fields were scarce in 1980s' China, when the country was just beginning to reform and open up. Instead, Wang trained on ground covered with crushed coal cinders.

"Both my thighs were covered with abrasions even if I wore thick pants. It hurt very much, and I also had to run 10km every day," she said.

Wang devised an escape plan and went along with it until she arrived at the railway station.

"My coach found out my plan and 'caught' me at the station. He told me I needed more perseverance in order to achieve success," Wang recalled.

Wang returned to the team and in 1982 at the fifth Hunan Provincial Games, she and her teammates won the silver medal. Four years later, she again stood on the provincial games podium for another silver.

However, Wang did not try out for the national team which was set up in 1983, as she fell at the first hurdle - her height.

"They said the minimum height requirement was 1.70m," she lamented.

Known as the Steel Roses, the national team began to enjoy success in the 1990s, finishing runners-up in both the 1996 Olympic Games and the 1999 World Cup to become a source of national pride.

When Wang retired from playing, she was hired by Changsha Metalware Factory to work in its union. She got married and gave birth to a girl, and though football was no longer a part of her life, her athletic talent was inherited by her daughter, who captained her middle school basketball team.

In 2006, the national team were struggling to recreate their former glories, finishing only ninth at the 2004 Olympic Games, and were under pressure to deliver a good result on home soil at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was then that Wang also dropped to the lowest point in her life.

"I lost my job, at 38," she said.

Zhang faced two choices, either going back home to be a housewife, or becoming a community worker.

"I asked myself 'can you adapt to a new job at this age?' My answer was, 'Yes, I can'," she said.

Wang took up the challenge, started afresh, and her life was soon back on track, and better than ever.

Wang has won a number of awards from Changsha City and Hunan Province for her excellent community work.

"No matter whether it is a football match or my day job, I always give 100 percent. This is what makes life worth living." Enditem

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