Veteran blocker Yan aiming to stay in shape for 2020 Olympics

Veteran volleyball blocker Yan Ni is trying hard to stay in top shape ahead of China's quest for back-to-back Olympic titles at the Tokyo Games next year.
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After winning the women's volleyball World Cup with China and also taking the tournament's Best Middle Blocker award in September, Yan Ni is trying hard to stay in top shape ahead of her country's quest for back-to-back Olympic titles at the Tokyo Games next year.

"It was so exciting to win the World Cup again, it was a great team effort," Yan told Xinhua. "We fought hard on the way to victory, but we will face a tougher challenge at the Olympic Games next year."

Averaging 0.94 stuff blocks per set at the World Cup, 32-year-old Yan received the Best Middle Blocker award and joined teammate Zhu Ting in the tournament's Dream Team, having also been named Best Middle Blocker at last year's world championship.

"I did not expect to be named Best Middle Blocker again. Actually, I did not realize it was me when the announcer said my name at the ceremony. Then Zhu told me 'It's you!'. That was really a sweet surprise," she added.

"My statistics at the World Cup were encouraging, but I am not totally satisfied with my blocking skills. I have a lot to learn from other top middle blockers around the world."

Standing 192 centimeters tall, Yan had played beach volleyball for 21 months before switching back to indoor volleyball, and said joining the women's national volleyball team was her childhood dream.

"When I was a kid, I dreamed of joining the national team. My mother was a huge fan of volleyball, with Lang Ping as her idol," she said.

Playing club volleyball in northeastern Liaoning Province, Yan was selected to the national team for the first time in 2009, but did not have many opportunities to play at international competitions over the following years.

In 2013, the Chinese head coach job was taken by Lang, a key member of the Chinese team that swept five major international titles in the 1980s, and Yan was named to the squad again.

"It was a tough road. I was selected and dropped a few times. I think I had not been able to impress because I was not good enough. I told myself to train harder, and I believed I would have my chance one day," she recalled.

Veteran blocker Yan aiming to stay in shape for 2020 Olympics

China's Yan Ni in action during the World Cup second-round match against Brazil in Sapporo, Japan, in this September 22, 2019, photo. China won 3-2.

The 2015 World Cup was the turning point in Yan's international career. She started in the decisive clash between China and Russia in round 10 of 11, and finished the match with 14 points, including six stuffs, to secure a crucial victory.

"I was so nervous, because the 2015 World Cup was my first major international tournament. I had dreamed of playing Russia twice during the tournament," Yan recalled.

"When coach Lang asked me to prepare myself to start against Russia the day before the match, I was nervous and excited and looking forward to playing. When the match finally began, I was still very nervous. Fortunately, we had an incredible start and then I was able to cool off."

China went on to beat Japan in the final round to win the title, and Yan's fine form continued as China's women won gold at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

There have been constant rumors in the last few years that the veteran middle blocker would retire after suffering injuries to her shoulders and waist, but Yan says she has no plans to leave the sport just yet.

"I've been suffering a lot with pain and injuries recently. Sometimes, when it hurt badly, I thought about giving up, but then I felt it was my responsibility to hold on and fight hard because the team and the coach need me. The feeling of being needed makes me happy," Yan said.

Yan added that she drew inspiration from the story of Lang, who endured dozens of surgeries during and after her career as a volleyball player.

"It's not easy for her," Yan said. "Once I told her I needed to take pain killers every day to keep on training, and she said 'I also need to take a lot of medicine every day'. When she is on the training court, I am motivated and encouraged to keep going."

Lang and Yan will work shoulder to shoulder as China seeks to defend its Olympic title at the Tokyo Games next year, with Yan vowing to be ready for the challenge.

"For sure the Olympics will be more difficult than the World Cup. All the best teams will be there and will be trying their best. It is important for us to improve ourselves and get ready for any challenge. I will get myself ready, too," she said. 

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