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Zhuper-star's return lifts Team China

Rio Olympics hero announces comeback to deliver massive boost for national squad's Paris 2024 hopes

By SUN XIAOCHEN | Updated: 2024-04-10 09:00
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Zhu Ting, pictured in action for Savino Del Bene Scandicci in an Italian Serie A1 playoff game on March 27, is returning to the national team after an absence of almost three years. IMAGO/ITALY PHOTO PRESS

The Chinese women's volleyball team has added a "Zhuper" reinforcement for its revival mission at Paris 2024, with star player Zhu Ting confirmed to return to the decorated program.

As one of the world's most intimidating spikers in her prime, the 1.98-meter outside hitter announced on Monday that she will rejoin Team China at the upcoming 2024 Volleyball Nations League, nearly three years after she last represented her country at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

"My goal coming back with the national team is to contribute to the team's Olympic qualifying campaign for the 2024 Paris Games. I will do my best, stay focused and block out all distractions to help the team qualify for the Olympics," the 29-year-old said in a statement posted on her Weibo account on Monday.

Zhu, who led the women's team to its third Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016, took an indefinite break from the national program due to her lengthy recovery from a wrist injury and off-court challenges related to her newfound fame since the Olympic triumph.

Her professional career, however, has continued to evolve overseas. She signed with Florence-based club Savino Del Bene Scandicci in July 2022, a few months after undergoing successful wrist surgery, to ply her trade in the Italian women's league and keep honing her game in Europe after a stellar stint with Turkish club Vakifbank Istanbul from 2016-19.

Healthy and refreshed, Zhu said it now feels like the right time to suit up for Team China on the international stage again.

"I feel like I've gradually picked up my competitive level and got my confidence back," Zhu said of her recent performances which have helped propel Scandicci into the Italian league's semifinals.

"I've come back strong after hitting rock-bottom in my career. Physically and mentally, I am well-prepared to play for my country again.

"I'm aiming to have a strong finish in the Italian league and then I will report for duty with the national team. I'll get back to my best shape as soon as possible and try to keep up with the national team's rhythm in training and competitions," said Zhu, who scored in double figures to help Scandicci beat Milan-based Vero Volley 3-0 in their first semifinal clash on Sunday.

Zhu's return comes at a critical time for Team China, currently coached by Cai Bin, with the squad having missed out on direct qualification to Paris 2024 due to a disappointing fourth-place finish at last year's Olympic qualifying tournament on home soil.

Host France and six other nations have already secured their places in the 12-team Olympic tournament, leaving Team China with no choice but to chase as many wins as possible during the 2024 VNL series in a bid to clinch one of the five remaining spots as the highest-ranked Asian side.

With the Italian season scheduled to conclude in two weeks' time, Zhu is expected to report to Team China in time for its opening VNL match against South Korea on May 14 in Rio de Janeiro.

Tough route back

Zhu came close to calling time on her playing career due to her physical and mental struggles in the wake of Team China's failure to defend its Olympic title at the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Dubbed "Zhuper" by international media thanks to her MVP-winning performances at Rio 2016, she was subsequently dogged by injuries — the most problematic being a recurring right-wrist issue first sustained in 2017. Her fitness woes inevitably took a toll on Team China's firepower over the net and ultimately on the squad's results.

Still nursing the wrist problem at the Tokyo Olympics, Zhu was well off the pace as Team China eventually failed to make it beyond the group stage in its worst campaign at the Olympics since its debut at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, where it won the first gold.

Legendary coach Lang Ping, who guided the team to glory in 2016, stepped down following the Tokyo fiasco, while Zhu faced harsh criticism online, with false rumors circulating that she had fallen out with the rest of the team at the Games.

"Rumors and slander against me on social media affected me and my family since the Tokyo Games, making me lose interest in the sport at times," Zhu confessed in her Weibo post.

"I had even officially filed for retirement with the provincial sports bureau in Henan, trying to stay away from all the distractions," added Zhu, who had a humble rural upbringing in Central China's Henan province.

"It was the leaders and officials with the sports bureau and the national team, especially coach Lang, who kept encouraging me not to give up, cared about me and supported me during the tough period that helped me regain faith in the sport."

With several formidable players from the 2016 Olympic team, including spiker Zhang Changning and veteran setter Ding Xia, back on his roster, head coach Cai is confident that the current group has the depth and finesse to reestablish supremacy in the sport, beginning with an impressive VNL campaign.

"We've been showing great momentum in training recently. Everyone is working extremely hard. We are not at our best yet, but we will be when it matters in the VNL," Cai said after a recent open training session.

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