Meeting Sun Wen

589836_mediumAfter reading this CNN Article on China’s plans to rule the soccer world, I remembered my interviews with Sun Wen, who in 2000, was named the FIFA Co-Player of the Century with Michelle Akers.By Tim Nash

Prior to the 1999 Women’s World Cup, I got a pretty cool assignment. I got to write some stuff for an internet companion to adidas’ television campaign for the World Cup – “There from the Start” – a nice way to point out that adidas was there when the soccer stars of the 1999 World Cup were little kids starting out in the game. Do you recall the commercials? Remember an infant Kristine’s Lilly’s make-believe mom putting her down in front of a soccer ball and she immediately races off out of site, dribbling the ball all the way. Or German goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg in a playpen swatting away toys, yelling “Nein!”

We are in Lockhart Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. It’s hot. The process is tedious, and concentrating for this long had given me a headache. It has also slightly exaggerated what my wife calls “my inability to mask my impatience.” My capacity here is to stay off camera, keep quiet, don’t interrupt anything, and listen to the interviews on the B-Roll. Of course, when told of the assignment, my first question was, “What’s a B-Roll?” Remember, this is 1999. The internet is still in its infancy. Laptops are a luxury. I learned that B-Roll is what the film producers shoot away while the commercial is being filmed. It’s kind of a record of the whole thing, a back-up and a source of additional information. That’s what I needed, the additional information.

Each player – Lilly, Shannon MacMillan, Rottenberg and China’s Sun Wen and Liu Ailing – came to the top of Lockhart Stadium and sat for an on-camera interview conducted by one of the producers. After they completed their questions, it was my turn. Of course, Rottenberg, Liu and Sun Wen conducted their interviews in their native tongue. I speak three languages – English, Yankee and Southern.  The only German I knew was Nein, because I frequently wrote that on my golf score card. And Mandarin? I like the oranges, but that’s about it. So it was a long the process, especially when you factor in the jet noise from the nearby airport.

Anyway, Lockhart Stadium is where I met Sun Wen. And on that day, my opinion and impression of the Chinese Women’s National Soccer team changed. I had been told countless stories of the USA’s early trips to China and how different everything was there. The accommodations, the food, the people. To me, the Chinese team seemed regimented, with an overwhelming sense of sameness. They seemed to lack the personalities on which other counties put extremely high premiums. They seemed to be the anti-Brazil, which is a collection of personalities who viewed soccer as a means to express their individuality, their flair. The Brazilians laughed and danced. The Americans smiled and enjoyed each other. The Chinese, on the other hand, seemed to be all-business. Meeting and talking with Sun Wen proved me off-track.

She spoke with a confidence and optimism that mirrored that of U.S. athletes. She never complained about moving away from home at age 11 to a special school for promising athletes, choosing to see it as a great opportunity instead. She spoke of being intimidated when she saw all the other athletes and wanting to go home. She explained how her father urged her to give it a try. She was polite and funny.

I had marveled at the way she played the game, being so simple and so dangerous at the same time. Her vision of the field was extraordinary, and she was as deadly passing the ball as she was shooting it. I wondered how she was able to grow into such a special player in a system – a country — that encouraged and praised the group and downplayed the individual.  I discovered part of the reason. She told me about a coach she had when she was young, around 14. The guy told her flat out, “You will never be a good soccer player. You should stop.” She explained how there were no tears, no hysterics, and never was there the iota of a chance she would take his word for it. “No, it made me work harder,” she said.  I asked if she had seen him recently. “I have seen him a lot,” she said, a sly little smile appearing as if it can’t be helped. “What do you say to him?” I wondered.  “I don’t need to say anything. He is no longer a coach, and I am going to the World Cup.”

Other than being from literally the other side of the world and from a country as opposite as can be imagined from the U.S., and developed in a manner vastly different from all other countries in the tournament, Sun Wen is the same. She wants to shop. She wants to hang out with her teammates and laugh. She wants to be the best, and she wants to win. Unfortunately for her, she never did.

Two years later, two years after she suffered a defeat in the worst way possible in the 1999 World Cup final, two years after watching helplessly as one of her teammate’s penalty kicks was saved by Briana Scurry in the tension-rich tiebreaker in a sweltering hot Rose Bowl, a tie-breaker her mother could not bear to watch, but 20 million others in her country could, I met Sun Wen again. In Florida again. This time it was Boca Raton. In a move that provided unquestionable global credibility to a new soccer league, Sun Wen had agreed to join the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA). If you are wondering how something like that happens, how China’s best player and four of her best teammates are suddenly able to leave China and come live in the United States, you need to ask Lauren Gregg, the USA’s assistant coach since before 1991. Lauren, and the respect other countries had for her, was largely responsible for every international player that played in the WUSA.

Sun Wen was in Florida for the WUSA Combine, where invitation-only players flocked to try out for the new league. Fortunately for me, the WUSA invited someone to help the Chinese players become acclimated. And even better for me, it was May Fair. A wonderful woman with tireless energy and a tremendously patient demeanor, May is the mother or Lorrie and Ronnie Fair, the twins who went to college at UNC and Stanford, respectively. Lorrie was the youngest member of the 1999 World Cup champs. Both of the Fair bookends would play in the WUSA. I had gotten to know May over the years. In fact, in 2000, in Australia, I walked into the U.S. team hotel lobby, where I hung out at the bar quite a bit, and saw May sitting with a dapper gentleman, decked out in a three-piece suit, fedora on the table, sharp tie and matching handkerchief in his breast pocket. Kind of hard to miss, actually. May called me over and introduced me to Gay Talese, a world famous author, who famously wrote about the mafia. He was thinking about writing a book about the Chinese player who had her PK saved in 1999. We talked for a long time, mostly about what he saw as the incredible injustice in the penalty kick tiebreaker.

In Boca Raton, I invited May and Sun Wen to dinner. “You translate, I pay,” was my offer. Guess where we went? Your most obvious guess will be correct. Yep, Chinese. It was a nice place, though. Not one of the places in a strip mall where the man and wife in the back scream at each other. No, I’m a classy guy. Sun Wen seemed happy to get out for a while. She sat in the back seat of my oversized rental car, which could have been mistaken for a police cruiser. She looked out the window at the neighborhoods and strip malls and stores, and I imagined her thinking, “Every place looks the same in this country.”

At dinner, we talked about what she wanted to accomplish in the U.S., the WUSA as an opportunity for women, and growing up as a soccer player in China. It’s obvious to me, again, that parental support played a huge role in her development. She was encouraged to play, never discouraged, and she had the support of proud parents every step of the way. She spoke in humble tones about paving the way of other girls in China to be professional soccer players, and maybe she could have a lasting impact.

She remembered me from Lockhart Stadium, and she was comfortable and relaxed with me. She carries herself with an air of confidence anyway, but she seemed calm and stress-free during dinner. I’m going to take eight percent of the credit for that. The other 92 percent goes to May, who has that kind of effect on people. So, we are chatting. She is telling us that the Chinese food in the U.S. is bland, not enough spices. She wants to practice answering questions in English, which will give May a break for a little bit. Sun Wen does very well, but slips up when I ask her about her favorite players. “I like noodle food,” she said. Well, so do I. We moved on. Later, I asked, through May, what she was most looking forward to in the U.S. She had a simple, one-word answer. She answered in English and she didn’t hesitate. “Freedom,” she said.

I immediately looked at May, who at first didn’t grasp what I saw as a potentially serious miss-step. “May,” I said. “Let’s be clear about what she means by Freedom.” Maybe I watch too many spy movies, but I wanted to be sure Sun understood the various ways her answer could be interpreted in China. My suspicion was that she was not making a political statement, she wasn’t saying the U.S. was a better place to live than China, or American citizens are treated better than the people in China. I watched Sun’s face as May explained. “Oooh,” she said the moment she understood, then laughed a little at herself. She then explained, safely through May, that the type of Freedom she meant was the kind where you are free to play soccer, train, and live a life like other women her age.

Her freedom gave her a chance to pursue her non-soccer interests. She calls herself a romantic. She sings a lot, devours literature and poetry, and she writes. She’s particularly proud of a poem that was published in a Chinese newspaper. However, most of her writings remain private, with the exception of a poem she published before the Sydney Olympics, the last line of which reads, “Come on girls, do not wait to follow your dreams.”

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