There was constant jabber last curling season about burnout and fatigue. Some players were wiped out from following the long grind leading to the Winter Olympic Games. Some said they needed a break. Some wanted to take a year off.
Others talked of out-and-out retirement and then followed through.
Probably none had more legitimate complaints of wear and tear than Bingyu Wang and her young teammates from China.
And yet there were really few complaints. Even though it was obvious, last March at the World women’s slugfest in Swift Current, that an endless six-year quest through the Gobi desert of world curling was taking its toll on the squad that had exploded virtually from nowhere to win the world title in a matter of a half-decade.
“We were tired,” Wang admits, rather reluctantly, “but we keep playing.”
You get the idea that’s the way it works in Wang’s home country. An admission of anything less than total readiness is unacceptable when you are, in fact, a tool in a government sports program.
Wang and her mates — Yin Liu, Qingshuang Yue and Yan Zhou — probably could count the hours on one paw during which they weren’t thinking and eating curling over a period stretching back to 2005. That’s when they were thrust on a rollercoaster that seldom allowed them to see the lights of their home town, never mind the flicker of their home fires.
“No other curling team I know ever played to their kind of schedule,” says former coach Dan Rafael of Montreal, who’s now languishing in Pinerolo, with the Italian national teams.
Youth helped this unit. The girls were young, agile, in a class by themselves physically and mentally.
The entire plan was aimed at Olympic gold but the team peaked a year early at the Worlds. Strain was evident, if only barely, at Vancouver where it settled for a bronze medal.
Still, the light dawned on somebody at some level in the Chinese sports hierarchy. Like, these girls need a break!
“We have been together every day for three years or more,” says Wang. “Thinking the same way, always curling, leaving no time for small things.
“That’s why we needed a free time. It was good for us.
“This isn’t only for curling. You go outside and you can learn other things, watch other people, and it broadens your scope of interest. That’s great.
“Now I have gone to the U.S. and studied and played with three different teams for one (summer) month in (Madison) Wisconsin. It was good. With the old team, you talk a lot about releases and deliveries and strategy but when you are on your own with a fun team you don’t think that way. It is not so serious. It is more good time. It opens up your mind to other things.”
Obviously, the break which ended when the team played in four autumn ‘spiels in Western Canada and won one of them, was more than required. It was a prerequisite to re-organizing the team and launched a new campaign with the 2014 Olympics in the centre of the target.
When the Pacific Rim championship came along in November, lead Zhou was taking time off to study. With a new lead, the team finished second, losing the final to unsung, homestanding Korea.
“We lost in the final but played 10 games and had nine great games,” says Wang, who still qualified for the 2011 Worlds at Esbjerg, Denmark.
“I think it was good for us to take a break away from each other,” she says. “But now we are back together and we know each other and this is very important. We are hoping we will be able to play together for at least four more years.
“I think the break was positive for the team and will keep us together for the important events.”
Playing with an alternate lead after six years together?
“It worked,” admits Wang, “but it still was like three-and-one instead of four.”
International coaching has been denied the team so far this season. .
“We miss Big Dan,” said Wang, “but that was his choice. We miss him because he coached us for two years and we got a lot of success. We may find another Canadian coach before the next Olympics. But I don’t know . . .
“It is a difficult for us. Sometimes we have problems we can’t control.
“We feel more comfortable with our travelling now. Everybody is so friendly to us because they know us now.”
In fact, the Chinese women probably have a better line on Canadian geography than that of their own giant nation. They’ve spent more time in Canada the past six years.
Meanwhile, Wang admits curling is getting more exposure in the People’s Republic since her team played in the Worlds and Olympics.
“But there are not enough tournaments on TV in China,” she says, “so maybe they will forget us until we can be successful again.”
More people in her country watched Wang curl at the Olympics than all other Chinese athletes, including short track speed skaters and figure skaters.
“But I think one reason for this is we play more games, and every one of our games was televised, and half of the men’s team’s games were televised,” says the 26-year-old Wang.
“I know that it wasn’t just people from my city and the north that were watching. The people from the south were watching and now they want to play. And they are talking about building a curling rink and I’ve heard a lot more people want to try the game.
“We walk on the street in Beijing and we are known. We are more famous now than before the Olympics. Ten years ago, nobody knew curling in China. (Including the Wang team). You talked of winter sport then, you would have been asked if you were a hockey player.
“I can’t believe curling now is so popular but I believe that we have to keep going. In China, there are only two teams of calibre. We have to help other teams to grow and make curling in China more strong in terms of numbers.”
Among other things, the Wang team has learned to loosen up even for events like this World Financial Group Continental Cup.
“In the last Continental Cup we just played the games and went home to bed,” says Wang.
“This time, we asked ourselves, why don’t we go outside and enjoy the small parties and the beer, and tomorrow we can play again?
“This is a good event to work on communication and we know most of the North American teams and we are good friends already so why should we be shy? We can learn much from the other teams playing with them here as well as against them in other places.”