|Chinese wheelchair rugby coach Wen Yan, left, prepares her players for today's competition against Team USA.|
That is, until a violent sport — and its gung-ho American stars — changed her life.
Today, Zhang lines up against her heroes as Team China plays Team USA, the gold-medal favorites, in the opening battle of Murderball, aka wheelchair rugby, a clashing contact sport set to take the Paralympic Games by storm — and smash stereotypes about people with disabilities.
The sport, invented in Canada in the late 1970s by a group of quadriplegic athletes who wanted an alternative to wheelchair basketball, hit the headlines with the 2005 U.S. documentary Murderball.
The award-winner at the Sundance Film Festival showed audiences what wheelchair users can do and helped push the game globally into the fastest-growing wheelchair sport. Men and women can play on the same team in the game, which shows how sport and cinema can transcend language barriers. Nineteen countries field national teams.
China is among the newcomers to the sport. When the country started to build a team from scratch in 2006, scouts in Zhang's eastern province of Shandong asked her to try out.
"I doubted I could play, the game seemed so fierce," she remembers. Then she watched Murderball. And again, and again.
"I've seen it dozens of times. I don't understand what they are saying, as my English is poor, but I can feel the atmosphere and understand the lead athlete's situation," says Zhang, 40, speaking in Mandarin. "They are saying, 'We are not patients or victims, we are independent athletes.' And now I am representing my country."
China has screened the film for its squad multiple times, team official Xin Yue says. "They love it. Many of our athletes did not think they could ever be independent and so strong in their bodies," he says.
Coach Wen Yan, 57, who sports a long ponytail and a longer history as a soldier and basketball coach to the military, says wheelchair rugby has been key to rebuilding the spirits and lives of her players.
"In just a few seconds, these people became disabled by serious accidents," she says. "Afterward, they felt depressed. They often underestimated themselves and felt inferior. But now, after training, they have recovered and wear a bright smile. We expect to come in last of the eight teams at this tournament, but we will show our spirit and enjoy the experience."
Cui Maoshan was depressed and hospital-bound in southwest Yunnan province when officials from China's federation for disabled people visited him last year. He broke his neck in 2006 in a fall at a building site. He had never heard of rugby, known as "olive ball" in China, let alone the wheelchair version.
Cui will play for his country in today's game after a year of full-time training. "I am not depressed now, but feel great and proud," he says. His only regret is that his wife and two children, back in their home village, have never seen him play. The cost of traveling to Beijing is too high, but he expects them to watch on television.
Mark Zupan, the U.S. team captain and tattooed Texan whose life, including his love life, is documented in Murderball, is delighted with the response to the film.
Murderball "bridges so many gaps that it doesn't matter what language you speak. The film brings disability to the forefront," says Zupan, 32, of Austin, who was disabled from an auto accident at 18. "Ten minutes into the film, you don't see the wheelchairs, you just see athletes."
Beijing student Zhang Peng, a volunteer at the wheelchair rugby training venue, agrees. "I used to think disabled people were a bit mysterious, and I had little contact with them. But once I saw them playing, I didn't think they were disabled at all. The game is so exciting. They are just like able-bodied people. I realize they are just like us and want equal treatment, not sympathy," he says.
Zhang, the only female player on Team China's 12-person roster, wants a photo with Zupan after today's game. "I worship him," she says.
Zupan warns that she will get no leniency on the court because she's a woman. "Girl or guy, if you're in my way, get out, or I'll move you out of the way," he says. There'll be trash-talking, too, he warns.
Zhang is unfazed. "I won't understand if any foreign player insults me. On the court, no one considers me a woman. The intensity and excitement is the charm of rugby," she says. "It will shock people that quadriplegics can play such an exciting game. That's what I hope the Paralympics will bring to China."