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U.S. settles score with Cuba, will play for gold

August 22, 2008|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- By Saturday night here, all of volleyball will learn just how golden her touch really is.

That's when Jenny Lang Ping, the U.S. women's volleyball coach, will have directed her team in the gold-medal match of the Beijing Olympics.

She is, after all, the closest thing the women's USA program has to that top spot on the podium, where they play your national anthem and raise your flag. That's where Lang Ping was in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Standing on top of the podium.

For China.

One platform below was the vaunted U.S. team of Coach Arie Selinger, featuring Flo Hyman and Debbie Green and so many others who had, for years, put their lives on hold to go for gold. But the Chinese, with Lang Ping as the star hitter, won out and that's the best the U.S. women have done since, adding only a bronze in 1992 in Barcelona.

Lang Ping went on to coach the Chinese national team to a silver medal at Atlanta in 1996, then signed up in 2005 to coach the U.S.

On Thursday afternoon, in a gymnasium with nearly 18,000 people in her hometown, Lang Ping was loudly cheered when her team's match started against heavily favored Cuba. And when her team had won, she was giddy with emotion.

"Jenny was so excited, she was talking so fast, kind of in a high, squeaky voice, like a little girl," said U.S. star Logan Tom. "I kept picturing her in pigtails."

There was much to be excited about. The Americans had just assured themselves of at least matching the L.A. silver and also of getting a shot at that gold. They had done it by shocking a favored Cuba team that had handed them their only loss in pool play, a straight-set romp. This time, Lang Ping's team returned the favor, and then some.

The scores, in the best-of-five semifinal match, were 25-20, 25-16, 25-17.

Hours afterward, the U.S. women learned who their opponent would be in the gold-medal match: Brazil.

Not even the thought of facing a team that beat the powerful Chinese team -- in straight sets, 27-25, 25-22, 25-14 -- could dull what the Americans did Thursday.

Said setter Lindsey Berg, "We played the best volleyball of the tournament at the right time."

Former Stanford All-American Tom went into the match as the leading scorer in the tournament with 97 points, and it was her leaning, tough-angle spike that put the U.S. on a roll in the first set, at 12-11, that it relinquished again only for seconds early in the second set. Tom made that shot, slipped on a slick floor on landing and went down hard. But she popped back up and stayed the leader the rest of the way.

Tom had played in the Sydney and Athens Olympics, but bowed out for three years after Athens, after six years of playing on the national team and still no Olympic medal. She said she struggled with the decision to come back this time, and wasn't even sure she'd be wanted.

"It was a mutual thing," she said. "For me, it looks like a damn good decision right now."

That didn't mean Tom was happy to finally get a medal.

"I want gold," she said.

Cuba has won three of the last four gold medals, yielding to China in Athens, but it never got a chance in this semifinal.

"They were amazing," Cuba's Yaima Ortiz said of the Americans. "They played a game almost perfect."

Coaches don't want to hear about perfection, at least until the job is done. USA volleyball's golden girl is no exception.

"You can't think about winning a gold medal or a silver medal," Lang Ping said. "You have to think about how they [your team] can play best."

But sometime Saturday night, if the touch holds, Jenny Lang Ping can think about another trip to a high podium, where they play your national anthem and raise your flag. It could be a different song and a different flag.

But, with her team up there, it will belong to her again.


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