Ping's emotional return to China ends with surprising medal run

BEIJING -- They hung from the railing, 20 feet above, swatting and clicking at something they couldn't reach. One fan held a sign in Chinese that said, "Welcome Home, Lang Ping." It was the final night of the Jenny Lang Ping circus in China, and Ping was about to let out a giant sigh.

She smiled and waved and headed up the tunnel until the giant icon turned to a tiny speck.

Inside a special old haunt where Ping once played, it could be said she had the best of almost everything -- a surprising Olympic run for her United States women's volleyball team, complete adulation from her countrymen in China, and a silver medal after Saturday night's
25-15, 18-25, 25-13, 25-15
loss to Brazil.

But when Ping's 16-year-old daughter, Lydia Bai, sat down for her mom's postmatch news conference, and a group of Chinese volunteers aimed its cameras and snapped wildly at the youngster, one world seemed to be suffocating her.

"I actually didn't know how big Jenny Lang Ping was until I walked in the airport here for the Olympics," U.S. libero Stacy Sykora said. "People told me, but I'd never seen it with my own eyes.

"People take pictures of the back of her head. They'll be 40 feet away and put themselves in it with the back of her head. One guy, the other day, he lost his shoe and still continued to try to get a picture of her and left his shoe behind. Incredible."

The Olympic crush has been so bad that Ping has had to be sneaked through back doors and whisked away in cars instead of riding the team bus. She wanted to focus on volleyball, and closed her practices and limited her media time.

But even in the end, it was about much more. Ping barely sat down for interviews late Saturday night when a Chinese journalist asked if she'll come back someday to coach for her native country.

"I'm really very tired," she said. "The players need a break, too."

She became one of the most revered figures in Chinese history when she led her country to a gold medal –- one of its first Olympic golds -– in 1984. It happened at a time when China was still closed off to the rest of the world, and Ping became a symbol of the country's rise to athletic prominence.

They called her the "Iron Hammer," and followed her everywhere. At 6-foot-2, she stood out. Ping has been featured on a stamp, had venues named after her, had her wedding televised nationally in China. When she moved to the States 12 years ago, she wanted "a normal life."

Coaching the Americans has been a mix of solitude and self-induced pressure. In 2005, she inherited a U.S. women's team that hadn't medaled since 1992.

"She used to be a player, and she understands the game of volleyball," Sykora said. "She's female, she's Chinese. It's a completely different perspective than other coaches we've had. I'm not saying what's best and what's not best. Whatever works. All we can say is we got a silver medal, and she's our coach."

The crowd erupted Saturday night when Ping's face flashed on the video board during introductions. As the Americans rallied in the second game, the Chinese chanted, "Iron Hammer."

"Nobody can replace her. She's still the best," said Inness Lia, a Chinese woman who showed up to see Ping. "I became a fan when I watched her play in 1984, when I was 14. She was a great spiker. She's the king of volleyball, China volleyball."

Brazil came into the night perfect, and had not dropped a set in the entire Olympics. When Logan Tom delivered a smash to tie the match up at 1, the Chinese thought Ping was on the verge of another Olympic gold medal. But the Americans fell into a 19-11 hole, and were doomed by service errors.

Ping called a timeout and placed her hands on her hips when the U.S. fell behind 5-3 in the fourth. None of the Americans' adjustments seemed to work. When Tom's final spike sailed long, the Brazilians danced and their coaches fell to the floor.

Ping hugged her players. But within minutes, she was hit, on the court, by autograph seekers.

"I never once saw her look like she had pressure or that she was scared," Sykora said. "She held her head high. She was great.

"I've never seen this in volleyball. You have to understand … in America, volleyball is not there yet."

And maybe that will help the U.S. keep Ping. Her daughter is a budding volleyball star, a junior national team player who's 6-foot-2 like her mom. USA Volleyball didn't publicize Lydia's ascent, and the family is OK with her being unknown for now.

But on Saturday night in China, it was impossible. The locals wanted a shot of the little hammer, who's actually nicknamed "The Great Wall."

Ping was tired. She wanted to go home.

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.