One Chinese Woman's Path From Hinterlands To Top-Tier Athletics

Liu's journey out of rural poverty reflects both will and luck.
Liu's journey out of rural poverty reflects both will and luck. (Maureen Fan - Twp)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

KUNMING, China -- When Liu Huana was 5 or 6 years old, she learned to help her older sister put goats out to pasture. By the time she was 7, she could take care of 20 goats by herself, often stopping to sneak fresh watermelon from another farmer's fields.

Liu's village lay at the end of a dirt road not far from the city of Jining, in southwestern Shandong province. Her father, a former soldier, could afford to give her a few cents each morning to buy a steamed bun or flour pancake on the way to school.

Today, Liu is a member of China's national women's soccer team, training day and night and hoping to play in the Women's World Cup that China is hosting this fall. Her journey out of poverty has been marked by single-mindedness and luck.

Not many rural children get a chance to work their way up to a place on a professional team in China, especially in sports popular among urbanites, such as soccer. In fact, Liu is one of the few members of the national team from the countryside. Most of the other women, whose ages range from 19 to 27, are from prosperous cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Dalian.

"I had never heard of soccer until I was 13, when I moved to the county for my fifth-grade studies," Liu recalled. "One day people from the local athletic school came to our school to select new members. The teacher recommended me because I was the fastest runner in the class. I wore a skirt and saddle shoes that day, and I just took off my shoes and ran."

It was her first time on a soccer field, she recalled, and when she was asked to join a group of boys who were already playing, she picked up the ball with both hands and ran for the goal. That blunder aside, she quickly won admirers.

"What impressed me most is her persistence and desire for improvement," said Lin Mo, 46, coach of the Shaanxi provincial soccer team. Lin visited in 1995 and selected nine candidates from the county athletic school, including Liu, then only 14.

At first, Liu was often benched in favor of older, more experienced players. Discouraged, she practiced harder.

"She practiced on weekends when other teammates were out shopping," Lin said. "She played soccer with her brain. She was the only one who kept asking questions until she got the answer and knew how to fix her problems."

Three years ago, Liu was asked to join the national team. Her provincial team had been training in Guangdong province when former national coach Zhang Haitao asked her what she could do.

"I can keep on running," Liu recalled saying, pausing because she was embarrassed about her technique and didn't know what else to say.

"Then it's enough, as long as I have your word," Zhang replied.

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