LETHBRIDGE, ALTA. - For several years, Alberta became a second home for the Chinese national teams.
Bingyu (Betty) Wang and her team from Harbin spend several months each year living and training in Leduc, just south of Edmonton. Harbin is a sister city of Edmonton, so it proved to be a natural fit.
After their training sessions, the team appeared in several early-season events on the World Curling Tour, the team returned home.
They continued the routine for four years until the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
“Every curling season, we would come to Canada for training,” said Wang. “Before the Olympics, we lived in Leduc for almost a half-year. We got a lot of practise and games.
“We rented a house and we lived together.”
Wang takes back one distinct memory from her time in Leduc.
“Snow,” said Wang. “Lots of snow. I’ll never forget that. We met so many good people who helped us.”
It may have been coincidental, but the times the Chinese team spend training in Canada also happened to be the times it broke into international prominence.
Wang’s team claimed the Olympic bronze, the first-ever medal won by China at the winter Olympics.
Wang skipped the team to its three podium finishes at the worlds in their last four appearances.
Wang followed her 2008 worlds silver with her first world championship in 2009. Wang earned the bronze in 2011.
Not a bad record for a country that was first exposed to the game about a dozen years ago.
One factor that put the team into an elite level was a decision in 2008 to have Liu Yin throw third rocks for the team.
That back-end combination worked well for five years. One big question mark this time around is how the team will cope without Yin, who stepped out of the program when she got married.
“I think she will be back next curling season,” said Wang, who sounded more hopeful than certain. “I hope she will return. We know each other. We’re like sisters, almost like twins. We were always together.”
The adjustment period has proven to be somewhat unsettled as several players have tried to match Yin’s skill level.
At the recent WCT event in Grande Prairie last week, the team missed the playoff round after posting a 2-3 record.
“We tried different players in different positions and they’ve done well,” said Wang. “They make the ice bigger for me. That’s amazing.”
With the lineup changes come some lowered expectations. This is the biggest event the team has been in all year.
“Actually, we hope we can go into the playoff games, but our big goal is to get enough points to get into the Olympics,” said Wang. “It’s a new lineup, so I hope we can enjoy our time here. Play well, play our level.
“We’ll try and we have to do well in the round-robin. We hope we can get more medals.”
There continues to be much enthusiasm for the game in China and Wang’s crew can take a lot of credit for helping raise the profile of the game in one of the world’s most populous countries.
“There’s more interest in China than there was before the Olympics,” said Wang. “It’s okay now. We hope we can have more people come out on the ice.”
About 65 million Chinese tuned in to the 2011 worlds and one province with 100,000 students has added curling to its school sports programs.
The future, it seems, looks pretty bright for Chinese curling.