FEATURE Joint training camp with the U S and Chinese women wrestlers leads to new opportunities

By Erin Phipps | March 20, 2006, 10:37 a.m. (ET)
Colorado Springs, Colo.-As the excitement of the 2006 Winter Olympics begins to wind down, China is fast becoming a hot topic of conversation at the United States Olympic Training Center (USOTC) as athletes prepare for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

When USA Wrestling invited the Chinese women's wrestling team to participate in a joint training camp with members of the Women's Resident Program, at the USOTC in Colorado Springs, Colo., both teams knew the importance of the event.

"We saw the opportunity and invited them all over for a friendly training camp," said National Women's Coach Terry Steiner. "It's a great opportunity for us to establish those relationships, especially with the next few years. Their culture is so different and before we've had such a hard time building a dialogue. I think they understand we want a friendly relationship with them and I think they want the same."

Before arriving at the USOTC, two of the top Chinese wrestlers competed at exhibition matches at the Arnold Wrestling Challenge in Columbus, Ohio, against U.S. Olympic medalists Sara McMann (Iowa City, Iowa/Sunkist Kids) and Patricia Miranda (New Haven, Conn./Unattached).

With the upcoming World Wrestling Championships being held this year in Guangzhou, China and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, U.S. wrestlers understand the importance of creating a communication network with China.

"They're [ranked] number two after the World Championships. We can only get better by wrestling the best," said Vladislav Izboinikov, the Women's Resident Coach. "We felt it was a win/win situation to have such great competitors in our own room."

Among the Chinese wrestlers training at the USOTC are 2004 Olympic champion Wang Xu at 72 kg/158.5 lbs. and 2005 World champion Ren Xueceng at 48 kg/105.5 lbs.

Coaches and federation officials see the joint training as a good sign for both teams and countries. The opportunity to train together has given both federations a chance to open up means of communication. It has also given the national teams a way to pin-point areas that need improvement so that they will be prepared for the next time they meet in competition.

"We found there are some areas technically and tactically we need to work on," said Izboinikov. "Basically, the benefits any training camp would show. It exposes your weak areas and shows you what you need to work on, and reinforces your good areas and forces you to work harder."

Accompanying the Chinese wrestlers during their stay in the U.S. is Zhou Jinqiang, the Vice President of the Chinese Wrestling Association. The joint training camp marks the third time that Jinqiang has been to the USOTC. Jinqiang stated that the quality of the U.S. wrestlers, as well as the training atmosphere were key reasons why China accepted the invitation to practice at the USOTC.

"Through the communication, our girls have learned a lot, especially in their dealing with the different techniques and weight training," said Jinqiang. "We learned a lot of things that are very different than China's training. I asked our girls to keep an open mind and accept all methods of training."

Throughout the camp, U.S. coaches and Chinese coaches have alternated running the practices. This allows both teams to understand the other country's style of wrestling.

"We've seen a lot of different drills, even if it's games or warm-ups," said Steiner. "It's just a different way of training."

As expected, the difference in language was a small factor in practice, due to the fact that the Chinese wrestlers speak only Mandarin. Their translator has been able to help with the language barrier. For the most part, though, both coaches and wrestlers have managed to overcome the language barrier using gestures and demonstrations to get their meaning across.

"We all speak the same language-wrestling," said Izboinikov.

However, the Chinese wrestlers have expressed interest in learning English, so that the next time they come to the USOTC, they can speak to their American partners. Even at practice, Xu will ask Jinqiang how to say at least five or six words in English so that she can better communicate with her partner.

Outside of wrestling, the Chinese have been able to experience other aspects of Western culture, from shopping with some of the women wrestlers, site seeing around Colorado Springs, to eating traditional American barbeque at the home of Rich Bender, the Executive Director of USA Wrestling.

"We want to cultivate the relationship with China," said Bender. "They're hosting the World Championships and the Olympic Games. It's good for us to have a positive relationship with the host country of the Olympics. China is also one of the better women's wrestling teams. We want to learn from them and raise the level of our own performance as well."

For the American wrestlers, the experience has also been a positive one, allowing them to see a different method of training from a top ranking wrestling team.

"It helps us because we're more aware of a different style," said Clarissa Chun (Colorado Springs, Colo./Gator WC). "They're so explosive and quick. I think it's good for them to come here to change things up and bring different bodies to the room. No one has the same style and it's good to have diversity in the room. It closes the gap between us and makes us compete even harder."

While the American wrestlers have learned how well the Chinese execute their par terre defense and headlocks, the Chinese have been able to improve their strength and conditioning techniques, as well as their psychological approach to wrestling. Both teams and coaches have noted the benefits from training together and hope to make it an annual event, possibly on the Junior and Cadet level as well.

"This is the first time that China has come here for co-training. I'm so glad we've made an initiative between the two federations," said Jinqiang. "The level of training between our teams and the communication will benefit our relationship and our ability to wrestle, and bring our teams to a higher level."

Other doors have opened up as a result of the joint training camp. The Chinese Wrestling Association hopes to send the men's freestyle and Greco-Roman teams to the USOTC to train next year, and have also extended an invitation to the women's team to train at an international camp in China either after the World Cup held in Japan in May, or before the World Championships in China in late September.

"If [the U.S. teams] come to China, they can understand the culture and people, and know much more than the other countries [coming to the Olympics]," said Jinqiang. "It will benefit your teams."

The meeting of the two countries had a special meaning for No. 1 ranked Jenny Wong (Colorado Springs, Colo./Sunkist Kids), whose mother is from Guangzhou, China and father is from Hong Kong.

"I was really excited to have them come here," said Wong. "I was born in the U.S. but I feel more of a connection with them than some of the other teams that have been here because of my parents coming from China."

While the Chinese wrestlers have been at the USOTC training, Wong has been trying to learn words in Mandarin so that she can communicate with them.

"I can understand some Cantonese, but they speak Mandarin. My mom speaks Mandarin as well so I've been asking her for some words. I'm telling her to speak Chinese to me from now on so I can get ready [for the World Championships]," said Wong.

From all participants, the joint training camp seems to be a success, not only in helping to strengthen both teams, but to help each team see the other in a way they never could during a meet.

"When you see them in competition, which is all we've ever seen them, they're very serious and in competition mode," said Wong. "It's nice to see them laugh and to talk to them. Wrestling is good that way-it seems so universal. Wherever we go and the wrestlers we meet, it feels like we have so much in common. It's easy to make friends with them."

Both wrestling coaches and federations hope to continue the joint training between the two countries, allowing both teams to broaden their knowledge of each other's culture and of their styles of wrestling. Through this type of exchange of cultural ideas and practices in wrestling, the U.S. and China will hopefully be able to form a stronger relationship as all eyes turn toward Beijing in 2008.

Chinese Coach

Coach Steiner

Katie Downing

Leigh Jaynes

Kristie Marano

Julie Okot

Tina Pihl

Deanna Rix

Sally Roberts

Jenny Wong