Ningbo Beilun Gym was packed that summer night in 2005. The World Grand Prix Women's Volleyball Tournament had touched down in Zhejiang Province and Chinese fans were beside themselves watching China take on the US. Their hero had returned and the adoration was obvious: "Lang Ping, we love you!"
The Chinese faithful were cheering for their homeland, but the object of their affection came disguised as the opponent - she was the US coach.
Chinese spectators show their support for Lang Ping. The slogan reads "Go, Iron Hammer".
Mention the name Lang Ping to virtually any Chinese older than 20 and a smile creeps across their face. The "Iron Hammer", as she is fondly remembered, is one of the most beloved figures in modern Chinese history and helped turn China into a volleyball powerhouse.
Now, on the cusp of the Beijing Games, the current US coach faces the very real possibility of confronting the country she still calls home on the world's biggest stage. There are no guarantees that China and the US will meet in the Olympics. But if they do there is no doubt it will be a conflict of passions, as Chinese fans will be forced to question their allegiances.
Xu Yihe, a 50-year-old Beijing resident, says he'd be proud of Lang even if the US wins in Beijing at the cost of China.
"The fact that she was made the coach for the US volleyball team is the recognition of her ability, which I, as a Chinese, am very proud of," Xu says. "It would be a scandal if she deliberately loses to the Chinese team just because she was born, bred and trained in China."
The training Lang received in China seems to have given her a magic touch in her coaching career.
Lang Ping shakes hands with Chinese head coach Chen Zhonghe.
Heading into last year's FIVB World Cup, an Olympic qualifying event, Lang's US team was ranked eighth in the world - an Olympic afterthought. But guided by her cool expertise, the US charged into third place to snatch an early Olympic berth, defying all expectations.
"I'm very excited for the Olympic Games. It's very special for me," she says on the phone from USA Volleyball headquarters in Colorado Springs. "I wouldn't have really planned it four years ago, it just happened. My only wish is that the USA team can have a great performance in my hometown."
Lang is no newcomer to the Olympic stage having won gold playing for China in 1984 and silver as China's coach in 1996. What will be new and no doubt a little strange for the 47-year-old will be sitting on the other side of the court, possibly in between China and a medal. It is a controversial position for the coach, and not a decision she took lightly.
"I waited to see what was happening in China. If there were too many people against this decision I probably wouldn't have accepted the job," she says. "I didn't want to give myself too much trouble."
During her deliberations, which she says lasted three months, a huge public debate erupted in China, which she monitored closely. Although some said they would feel betrayed if Lang sided with the opposition, most seemed to support their hero in whatever she chose to do.
There was, in fact, more to Lang's decision than just her career. Her daughter Lydia, who is a US citizen born while Lang studied at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, had just turned 13. Wanting desperately to be near her daughter, Lang had added incentive to take the job in the US.
"I had been doing a lot for China with coaching and playing and now it was time to think about myself. I think people really understood, I think they were great," she says.
Although she was apprehensive about her first visit to China behind the US bench at the 2005 Grand Prix, she soon discovered the public was as proud of her as ever, a recurring theme in places like Hong Kong and Macau.
"Wherever we go the people are cheering for the US team," she says. "Of course, they're cheering for China first, but when the US plays another team, they always cheer for us."
There is at least one person in China who will not be cheering for Lang and the Americans: Chen Zhonghe, China's current coach, who was Lang's assistant when she was with China.
Chinese media have called previous meetings between the two "heping matches", a combination of the coaches' last names meaning "peaceful". It's a diplomatic way to bill a high-stakes showdown, and even though Lang is sure Chen respects her decision and insists their relationship is always professional, she senses some misgivings from her former colleague about her current job.
"I'm pretty sure he's not 100 percent comfortable," she says. "But we get along very well, even in the big tournaments, when we meet we're always very professional I think we'll get used to it."
Whatever the outcome in Bejing, Lang remains fiercely loyal to her Chinese roots and maintains her Chinese citizenship. She comes back to China about twice a year, though it's hard for her to spend much time in public since she has to deal with throngs of adoring fans everywhere she goes. But her celebrity is a responsibility she takes seriously.
"I have to really make sure I do the right thing or say the right thing, try to be positive because a lot of people see you as a role model and you really give them a lot of encouragement for their life or for their work. So I try to be a good role model."
Although the Iron Hammer will be pounding for a different team this summer, her heart still beats for China.
(China Daily January 22, 2008)