Athlete becomes crackerjack SWAT woman police officer

Chen Cheng, a retired modern pentathlon athlete, has turned her sporting prowess into fighting crime.

Ti Gong

Chen Cheng brushes up her shooting skills during a drill. 

Ti Gong

The file photo shows Shanghai’s SWAT team members patrol Yuyuan Garden. 

PUTTING her fencing sword and equestrian helmet aside, Chen Cheng, a retired pentathlon athlete, still excels at pistol shooting, running and swimming.

Chen, 30, has gone from sports to law enforcement, becoming one of 35 women on the General SWAT Police Squad of the Shanghai Public Security Bureau.

In Shanghai, the first all-woman SWAT team was established in 1997 with 38 members. Chen joined the team in 2011, the year she retired from sports competition.

“It was a logical move for me because being an athlete is a plus for the job,” she said. “And I really admired SWAT team from TV shows I have watched.”

SWAT stands for “special weapons and tactics.” Its team members are especially trained to deal with dangerous criminals and perilous situations.

In China, most women on the SWAT team are recruited from the world of sports. Very few of them did the usual studies at the police college.

Chen discovered the job was not quite what she initially imagined. Instead of collaring criminals every day, she spends most of her day honing her skills in activities such as fighting, wrestling and firearms practice.

“I had a hard time with fighting skills because I had been a swimmer for a long time, and swimmers don’t have strong muscles in their waists,” Chen said.

But she is a woman who takes practice seriously and works hard. In 2014, she won a gold medal at the national police triathlon competition — a grueling sport that required expertise in cross-country running, swimming and shooting.

She trained so hard, in fact, that she was diagnosed with arrhythmia in 2016, after she suddenly fell ill when swimming — intense physical training being the reason for it.

A year earlier, Chen was one of the four women police officers from Shanghai to represent China in an international anti-terrorism drill held in the Central Asian country of Tajikistan.

In the drill, she teamed up with two male police officers in tactical shooting.

“You couldn’t tell whether a member of the squad was a man or a woman because we were all armed from head to toe,” Chen said. “Women moved a bit more slowly than men, but we were totally up to the job at hand.”

Recalling the two weeks spent in the mountains where the drill was held, Chen said there were some hygiene concerns in the living facilities, but that was a minor irritant. Her proudest moment was participating in the flag ceremony.

“That was when I felt that I have to do my very best to make my country proud of me,” she said.

Chen now spends considerable time training new members of the team. She hopes to become a woman coach on the team. At present, most of the coaches are men.

Cheng Dongling, one of the first women to join the SWAT police back in the late 1990s, now serves as deputy head of the current team.

“Just like men, women SWAT police officers usually retire at age 35 and are assigned to other posts within the police,” Cheng said. “Due to injuries and retirement, the team was once left with only four members.”

Cheng said women outclass men in some disciplines.

“In terms of muscle power, women aren’t as good as the men, but they are better at shooting because nimbleness, not strong muscles, is required with firearms,” she explained.

Seeing team members come and go, Cheng said not everyone is up to the challenge.

“Those who stay longest usually have an upbeat personality while still taking the job seriously,” Cheng said. “If they don’t have a positive mental attitude, this job and its repetitive, hard training can easily wear them down.”

Members of Chen’s SWAT team are an average 29 years old. Some of them, including Chen, are still looking for Mr. Right. Cheng, like some of her former colleagues, married a police officer, which makes domestic life easier because both partners understand the rigors of the job.



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