US volleyballer Jenny Lang Ping comes home

Aug. 07, 2008, 9:09 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Jenny Lang Ping is back in Beijing where she can't hide.

The coach of the U.S. women's indoor volleyball team is a sports icon in China, where as a player she earned the nickname Iron Hammer for her powerful spikes. Lang led the Chinese women to Olympic gold in 1984 - becoming a national symbol of pride.

"It's difficult for us as Americans to grasp her popularity because volleyball isn't as popular in the United States," U.S. Olympic team libero Nicole Davis days. "It's been a neat experience to see a woman held up so high with such respect from all generations. Mothers want their children to touch her. There aren't that many parallels in the United States, not Michael Jordan, nothing. It's extremely unique."

Lang and the U.S. team arrived about a week ahead of the volleyball competition, which starts Saturday. The team is among 12 that will be playing in Beijing.

The reaction of local fans will be interesting when the United States meets China on Aug. 15. Lang's former assistant Zhonghe Chen coaches the Chinese.

Lang was an outside hitter for the Chinese national team from 1978-85 and then again in 1990. Credited with the ascent of the Chinese women's program, she helped the team to its first title in 1981 at the World Cup.

In 1995 she became the first woman to coach a Chinese national team. She led the women to a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the 1998 World Championship. After leaving the team in 1999, Lang coached a number of championship teams in the Italian League.

In 2005, she was hired as coach of the U.S. women's national team.

"The first time I went to the United States, it was a big decision because I wanted to taste a normal life," she said. "In China I couldn't hide. I couldn't stay in my room all the time. In the United States, not too many people would recognize me and I could have a normal life."

Lang's team is ranked fourth in the world, behind Brazil, Italy and Cuba in the close women's field. The U.S. men are among the 12 men's teams who open competition on Sunday, alternating days with the women.

Lang is the only female coach among the teams that will play in Beijing. She and former Hungary coach Gabriella Kotsis are the only women to coach teams at more than one Olympics.