From timid teenager to tough rugby skipper

Updated: 2011-07-08 07:42

By Cao Yin (China Daily)

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 From timid teenager to tough rugby skipper

Liu Yan, captain of the Beijing women's rugby union team, helps claim silver for China in the rugby contest at the 2010 Asian Games. Zhang Wei / China Daily

Beijing - It has been written that rugby is a sport for thugs played by gentlemen. Liu Yan is neither, but that has not stopped her from attempting to take the game to another level in China.

Unlike the majority of Chinese women, as a teenager she was less fascinated by singing, dancing and clothes than she was by the power and elegance of one of the world's most challenging sports.

"The first time I saw that oval-shaped rugby ball was when a friend introduced me to the game in 2004," recalled the 25-year-old. "I was so curious. I never imagined I'd one day be playing it."

Seven years on, she is not only captain of the Beijing women's rugby union team but has also represented her country at the highest level.

Liu looks every bit the rugby fullback - 168 cm tall, 67 kg, fast on her feet and tanned from hours of training under the hot summer sun. Yet, when she started taking an interest in the sport during high school in Linyi, a southern city in Shandong province, she was a rare breed.

A decade ago, less than 50 women were regularly playing rugby union, she says, displaying her now-encyclopedic knowledge of a game that originated in Britain in the 1800s. Today, the number is still only about 300.

Liu's big break came when scouts from the China Agricultural University in Beijing arrived at her school to select athletes for its physical education program. The college has played a key role in reintroducing the sport in China and its representatives were quick to offer a spot to Liu, who was by then one of the school's star runners.

She recalled that her father, Liu Dianming, was over the moon with the news she was selected and encouraged her to accept the offer.

"My dad is my mentor. He always hoped I would become an independent woman," she said, admitting that he has twice talked her out of quitting the sport when things got tough.

The following summer Liu Yan moved to the capital to start the next phase of her studies and rugby career.

Classes ran from 9 am until

6 pm, but to boost her fitness she said she trained extra hard.

"I went to the playground more than half an hour early every day to practice my technique but my teammates preferred to sleep longer rather than accompany with me, which made me upset," she said.

It was not long before the novelty wore off and her first crisis of confidence hit. She called her father and told him she wanted to go home.

"He just ignored my complaints," she recalled. "Instead, he encouraged me not to give up. 'Don't be a coward', he kept telling me."

Reinvigorated, in just a short time she was named captain of the university team.

Four years of college came and went in a flash, and many classmates began getting job offers and quit the team, leaving only two female rugby union players.

"At that time I considered quitting the team again and didn't know what my future would hold," she said, before describing how she could not sleep and would often sit beside the grass pitch to think.

Again, her father's words made the difference. "He told me that success might be waiting from me around the corner if I just stuck with it for a little longer," Liu said.

"It got me thinking about how the game had changed me," she continued. "Before, I'd been a little bit introverted. But after playing with others and captaining my university team, it helped me to develop my communication skills and gave me an open mind."

Soon after, she signed on for the Beijing women's rugby union team, where she has played ever since. During the week she works as a physical education teacher at China Agricultural University's campus in Haidian district.

She is already a regular for the makeshift national side and was selected for the squad that won a silver medal at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong province.

Next month, she will lead her club out at a national tournament in Kunshan, Jiangsu province.

"The exercise involved is a bitter pill, but the rewards are sweet," she said with a smile. "I've learned much from rugby and owe the game a lot. It helped me to mature quickly.

"Whenever a girl in my class shows an interest in rugby union, I always tell her, 'If you want to taste the sweet fruit, keep going and never give up'."

China Daily

(China Daily 07/08/2011 page2)