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UPDATED: April 3, 2010 NO. 14 APRIL 8, 2010
Staying or Leaving
Retirement looms as a difficult choice for China's leading curling athlete


IN ACTION: China's Zhou Yan (right) helps her team play Sweden at the 2010 Ford World Women's Curling Championship on March 25 (ZOU ZHENG) 

From six wins and five losses, China's Women's Curling Team placed seventh in the 2010 Ford World Women's Curling Championship (Worlds) held in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canada, from March 20-28.

There's quite a stir about the sport now in Chinese media and among the pubic. This was not caused by the worst result of the team in three years, but the likely retirement of lead Zhou Yan.

Gossip surrounding Zhou's retirement is not groundless, as her mother has previously been quoted by the media as saying that Zhou planned to retire. She said her 28-year-old daughter married in 2009 and the couple had to live apart because Zhou had to train in Canada, which takes up six months of the year.

"We planned to let her retire after the (Vancouver) Winter Olympic Games," the mother said.

At 28, Zhou is far from being too old to be involved in the sport. Andrea Schopp, skip of newly crowned world champion Germany, is 45.

Zhou's mother denied the speculation that her daughter was leaving because she was not earning enough money.

"My daughter's income is not too high, but 2,000 yuan ($293) a month in Harbin (their hometown) is okay ,"she said.

So, the main reason that Zhou hoped to retire was to just have a normal life, she said. "No matter in Canada or in Beijing, her life is full of training and competition."

To build a novice curling country into a formidable international unit, China, which hadn't introduced the sport until 1995, sends national teams to Canada for closed training there for several months a year.

"We have no other choice. Only by staying in Canada can we play consistently against high-level rivals and achieve rapid progress," said Li Dongyan, leader of China's National Women's Curling Team. The method, under the guidance of Canadian coach Dan Raphael, has so far proved effective.

But, apart from producing a strong team, high-intensity closed training does have its side effects.

Zhou herself said after coming back from Canada she had not officially applied for retirement.

"The Winter Olympics and the World Championship were so close and I didn't have time to think about it. Now I need a rest first and then I'll consider the future," Zhou said at the Beijing Capital International Airport on March 30.

Her team leader didn't give a clear answer either. "It's too early to talk about it. They need time to think it over," he said.

"We didn't receive a retirement application from her. Zhou is affiliated with the Harbin Municipal Sports Team, and we might receive a report from them. But we haven't heard any word from Harbin either," Yu Tiande, head of curling at China's Winter Sports Administrative Center, told Beijing Review on March 30.

Zhou, 165 cm tall, was born in 1982 to an ordinary worker's family, none of whom had shown any extraordinary sporting aptitude. At the age of nine, she was sent to learn speed skating to improve her physical condition. Later she was admitted to the Harbin Sports College to study short-track speed skating. Then, together with current teammates Liu Yin and Yue Qingshuang, she transferred to curling.

"It was just fun at that time. The little broom swept back and forward, and it was really enjoyable," Zhou said. "But at that time I didn't expect I could hold on and achieve today's heights."

The national women's team was set up in 2003. Zhou and the other Chinese girls learned and progressed quickly: They were the runners-up in the 2004 Asia-Pacific Championship, finished seventh in their World Championship debut in 2005 and stood on the top podium of the Worlds in 2009. In Vancouver this year, the Olympic debutantes won China's first curling bronze.

Despite China's seventh finish in this year's Worlds, Zhou's 89-percent success rate ranked No. 2 of the 12 teams' leads and stood out as China's most consistent player.

In team leader Li's opinion, the country's new found strength is just a "castle in the air." Compared to Canada where 700,000 people are involved in curling, the base of the sport in China is relatively undeveloped.

"Currently professional curling athletes in China don't even number 100 and talent coming through is far from being of a high enough level to make the team," he said.

If Zhou does quit, it will not only weaken the team, but also create a psychological impact on the other three. After the 2010 Worlds, Wang Bingyu, skip of the national team, expressed a will to finish a postgraduate course at Beijing Sport University. And if all the four leave, the castle will crumble.

"The country has trained me for so many years and I couldn't give up easily," Zhou said, talking about why she had not submitted a retirement application.

This stems from the national sports system of China. The country expends a huge amount of human, material and financial resources on training athletes. Statistics show that 4 million-5 million yuan (around $586,000-$732,000) is needed to create a single Chinese Olympian.

"We should seriously consider how to provide a foothold for curling in China as we all know there are no roots here," Li said.

The problem now is whether gaining a foothold for curling can be obtained by other means instead of the national system. Figures from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics show the price of using a sheet of ice for curling in Beijing is 1,960 yuan ($288) an hour, unaffordable for many people whose average monthly wage in 2008 was 3,726 yuan ($546). And there are together only three professional curling venues in China, one in Beijing and two in northeastern Heilongjiang Province.

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