Foreign Coach Adjustments in China Part III
This is a continuation of Roger Scott’s 4-part blog series for current or aspiring coaches who are considering working in a foreign country. In this case, his experience in China as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with the Chinese Olympic Committee (for both their Long Track and Short Track Speed Skating national teams) is chronicled. PART 3 covers: “Food” For Thought, My Mishaps Along the Way, Off Time, The Chinese National Anthem, The 70th National Day Parade (Military & Civilian), Pros vs Cons, and Long Track vs Short Track.
“FOOD” FOR THOUGHT
The food! I probably could have written an additional part to my blog just on this topic alone. This is one of the adjustments you have to make when going to any foreign country, let alone China. Sometimes you’ll like it and sometimes, well, not so much. When you are not having to pay for it, as was the case when eating with your team, you put up with a bit more regarding the buffet options. Some people like that, and others, like myself are so used to, at least, starting the day with more of a westernized breakfast (cereal, eggs, fruit, coffee, etc). Good luck with that. With the Long Track team, it seemed that breakfast, lunch, or dinner could be interchangeable. Hard to tell one from the other. OK, on occasion they may have served a fried egg or 2. There were variety of settings for consuming our meals, whether it was set in front of us (buffet style), or if we decided to seek it out ourselves.
Long Track team specific buffets often served much of their meat options (beef, chicken, mutton) in some type of liquid, which didn’t look too appetizing. They also often served fish heads and chicken feet, and of course we had rice at every meal. Any other fish that was offered always had bones in them. At Hainan Island, I practically choked on a fish bone. That was the last time I ate fish there. Not a pleasant experience. They also rarely had actual silverware which meant you either used chopsticks and/or a particular kind of white colored short spoon or you didn’t eat. The chopsticks weren’t much of an issue for me, thankfully.
And as previously mentioned in Part 2, when my Wife Julie came to stay with me in Calgary in August 2019, she brought me a suitcase full of items that I could not readily find in China. Some of that was my breakfast, which consisted of Starbucks VIA packets and instant oatmeal. Just add hot water to both..done! And since every single room we stayed in (including the Yurts) always had a hot water kettle, this made everything pretty simple first thing in the morning. I was now taking the law (of breakfast) into my own hands. Thank God for Julie!
During Julie’s stay in Calgary, Coach Lee invited her to join our Allround group (8 skaters) out to dinner at Korean Barbeque. It meant a lot to me that the team was happy to have her there and I wanted her to interact with them while she was visiting. On a side note, the coaches also drove our team shuttle to pick her up from the airport, which spoke volumes to me.
In Calgary, one of the dinners I really enjoyed was at the home of a personal friend of our Allround group Head Coach Lee Jaesik (South Korea). They hosted our 8-member athlete small group (and Coaches) and grilled out steaks, among other home cooked items. Coach Lee, his buddy and I even had a beer and a couple of shots together, I have to admit. It was a much-needed change from our regular meal pattern.
One other dinner spot we went as a team in Calgary was called Chinese Hotpot (some foreign coaches had a few other names for it that rhymed, but I’ll spare those here). It reminded me of The Melting Pot fondue restaurant, just not as appetizing unfortunately.
Now when I moved to Short Track late in 2019, the dining hall at Shougang (shared by Curling, Ice Hockey, Figure Skating, and Short Track) took quite a leap forward. None of their food was served in soupy trays. You could tell what each item was, and it had a healthy appearance to it. Most days they had fried eggs for breakfast as well. One of the interesting things to this dining hall was each athlete would enter and use a swipe card which would give them their own food tray that when slid along on the metal buffet runway from item to item, was specific to that athlete and would show them the exact (prescribed) weight of the food they would be eating on a small screen. Pretty cool concept. Everything there (including the overall vibe, in my opinion) was just on a different level. It was one that you actually looked forward to. And they had real forks! Haha.
But to be fair, Long Track was having new athlete dorms built when I left, so I must assume that their dining hall experience has improved over time.
Other meal settings included the western themed section of Beijing called Sanlutin (various restaurants), McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Wu Mart food shopping, meat/bugs on a stick (Chinese barbeque), and at a few of their huge malls. Here is a sampling….
4-Star Hotel Breakfast Buffet
Long Track Team Buffet
Short Track Dining Hall (shared with ice hockey, curling, and figure skating)
My In-Room Breakfast (Taking things into my own hands)
Sanlutin (Beijing) Western Breakfast – YES!!
McDonald’s Touch Screen Ordering:
Hippo Pizza – Hailar (Inner Mongolia, China)
Hailar – Chinese Barbeque – Meat (with a few bugs thrown in) on a Stick – Eating Out
Wu Mart (Food Shopping on Your Own)
A. Rice anyone?
B. I passed on this one
The Butchers Club (The mall near Tienneman’s Square - Western Burgers)
Calgary dinner at Coach Lee’s friend’s home
Korean Barbeque with Julie and team – Calgary
Chinese Hotpot - Calgary
Finally, I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention Hainan Island. One evening, 7-8 of us went out to dinner, sat down with menus (no translators however) and due to the language barrier between us and the staff, we all got up and walked out of the restaurant before we could order anything. Some of the aggravations you will face when communicating in China.
“NEVER A DULL MOMENT” - MY MISHAPS ALONG THE WAY
“Never a Dull Moment” was a phrase my buddy Scott Andrews would utter often! Mishaps, gaffes, blunders, whatever you want to call them, I managed to find them…and right when I arrived in Beijing too! Here are a few that are worth mentioning.
1. The Dinner Bill….
After arriving at the DaBao Hotel, the daily complimentary dinner buffet for the Team China Sports Performance & Rehab staff was just shutting down. However, the staff told us we (Dr. Dionne Vernon, myself, and 1 other I believe) could sit down, and they gave us menus. So, our thinking was that they still would serve us (at no charge since we were part of the staff) and so we ordered off the menu. This is where the language barrier immediately became a problem, as we had no translators to help us here. We order family style portions to share, and then here comes the bill. The bill? So, we already have a huge misunderstanding and we’ve only been there about 5 minutes. It became an issue since we had just arrived in China and hadn’t been paid yet (let alone had open our Chinese bank accounts) and only had the Chinese currency traded at the airport when arriving, which only paid part of the bill. And I don’t think they would let us wash us the dishes to pay the remainder either. What is Chinese for “wash the dishes?”
The DaBao Hotel Dinner Fiasco
2. The ATM….
Another adventure I encountered was having my bank card swallowed up by an ATM in a Subway Metro station as I was trying to load money onto my Metro card. You have to grab your card a bit quicker there when using an ATM, as I found out. Having to call their bank and explain to someone (who doesn’t speak good English) where you are and what happened from a loud subway station…in the middle of Beijing, China…is not my idea of fun. It took 6 days to get the card back, but thankful I could pay for everything through WeChat without needing cash.
The Famous ATM
3. The Beijing Track Invitational….well sort of…
Additionally, I (along with Scott Andrews) somehow managed to miss a plane from Beijing to Calgary (by way of Vancouver), by mistiming security and immigration checkpoints and then not realizing that a presumed short 5 gate walk in the terminal to your plane is more like a half a mile hike which turned into a full sprint (like an Old Hertz Rental Car commercial back in the day), arriving still 10-15 minutes early only to find everyone gone and the doors closed. Nobody in sight to help us. I later discovered that the airline somehow allowed my colleague Scott through even though he didn’t have a Canadian visa. My USA passport fortunately allowed me access into Canada. But if we had made that plane, Scott probably would’ve been detained upon arriving in Vancouver. So, we were never meant to make that flight.
Flight to Canada – 2nd Try Following Missed Flight
*The city listed below Vancouver isn’t pronounced like you think..haha.
4. The Guardhouse….
One late night, walking back from the subway station to the Shooting & Archery base (our temporary accommodations and performance training location) from an ATP Tennis tournament I attended in Beijing, my Google Maps takes me on a more direct route/shortcut back to the base. The only problem was I ran into a guardhouse of some sort. Not sure for what. And not sure how the guards would look at a foreigner showing up late at night out of absolutely nowhere, off of a dark road, in a communist run country. We were about to find out, I guess.
5. The Bus….
I missed the first flight to Calgary out of Beijing, so why not miss a bus ride back to the hotel as well. My welcome to the Chinese Speed Skating team moment came on the 2nd day in Calgary. When the schedule says the bus leaves at 6pm, and you arrive 10 minutes early, and everyone is already gone, and it is February with a wind chill of -10 to -15 degrees F, and you didn’t have all your heavy winter clothes (including gloves) with you yet (not knowing I would be going to Canada once I first arrived in China), it isn’t good. The only solution is sucking it up and walking (more like running) the 15 minutes back to the team hotel, and hope you get don’t get frostbite.
We did have some downtime, which I tried to take advantage of. Now I had a chance to go to the Great Wall but passed on it. This was because I wanted to save that trip for my Wife Julie and I in the future. Though I ended up coming home earlier than planned, there are definitely no regrets here. We will get back there one day.
Now this was something of a WOW moment. During my unexpected 3 week break in late March (end of Speed Skating season), I had a random meeting (while working out in the National Sports Training Center) with a woman who happened to be the first Chinese woman to hold a sports world record (High Jump, 1957). Her name was Zheng Fengrong. What a piece of sports history and what timing to meet someone of that stature. And she asked for a photo with me. It is one of my memorable moments I take from this journey. She was also one of the Olympic flag bearers for China from 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Pretty cool !
With Zheng Fengrong at the National Sports Training Center – Beijing
Zheng Fengrong was one of the 8 flag bearers at the Opening Ceremony – 2008 Summer Olympics – pictured in far upper left corner of photo
My sightseeing adventures included:
The Lama Temple (Beijing)
Beijing National Stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest) – A&B
The “Ice Cube” – Curling (The “Water Cube” for 2008 Summer Olympics Swimming) – C
The Olympic Green (The Olympic Park in Beijing, next to the National Stadium) – D
ATP Beijing Open (Men’s Pro Tennis – ATP World Tour)
Nick and I worked with the same junior tennis player in Atlanta about 10 years ago. I hadn’t seen him since he moved from Atlanta, but when I realized we were both in Beijing at the same time (he was there for the ATP Beijing Open), I reached out to him on Facebook, and he replied back pretty quickly. The next thing I knew, I was at the tournament watching the player he represents, Stephanos Tsitsipas, beat both John Isner and Alexander Zverev, before losing in the final to Dominic Thiem. **On a personal note, I was very happy for Nick and the opportunity of a lifetime that he has and is taking full advantage of.
Nick Tzekos – Agent for World #5 Ranked Stephanos Tsitsipas (Greece)
Stephanos Tsitsipas vs. Alexander Zverev – 2019 ATP Beijing Open Semifinal
Downtown Calgary, Alberta / Canada
Some engaging conversation taking place in downtown Calgary...
Banff (Western Canadian Rocky Mountains)
**My Wife (Julie) and I were able to get away from the team for a day and a half and do an overnight in Banff, about 2 hours away. Breathtaking scenery! My small group coaches allowed me to take off, even though you are normally supposed to get approval from the Team Leader or Director. All bets are off then. That is kept between us…haha.
We had dinner at 7500 feet
My trip to the hospital (Hailar/Hulunbuir)
**This was the only time in China where I felt run down. But any minor illness still required me to get checked out at the local hospital. As expected, the place was packed with patients. After getting blood drawn, you wait an hour and then check your results on a computer system, which also gives your prescribed treatment. From there you go get your prescription. Fortunately for me, it was only dehydration.
Downtown Hailar at night!
The CHINESE NATIONAL ANTHEM
This one was both a fun thing, as well as out of the ordinary. During our preseason camp on Hainan Island, they asked all the foreign coaches to get up in front of the entire Long Track and Short Track team (and Chinese staff) and sing the Chinese National Song/Anthem. We all rehearsed in the Athletic Training room (or at least tried to) for 1-2 hours prior. We received a huge ovation from the athletes, and it clearly was one of the more unique and memorable moments of my experience with the team.
My singing cheat sheet notes
The 70th NATIONAL DAY PARADE (Military & Civilian)
Now, I have seen some parades in my time, but nothing like this one. Ever. October 1st is called National Day in China. It celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China. When I was there in 2019, it was the 70th anniversary. It clearly was a huge deal. They put on the largest military parade in Beijing and Tiananmen Square in the history of China (580 pieces of military equipment, 160 aircraft) as well as a mass pageant (civilian parade of 100,000 people from all walks of like). It was unreal. They bused the entire Speed Skating team (Long & Short Track) along with the staff to a private location in Beijing to watch this on multiple big screen televisions.
** OK, I had to be a bit discreet, and not real sure if they would frown upon this or not if they knew but capturing the moment with some photos and videos looked like an interesting opportunity, as it was direct from their state-run CCTV live in China with no editing.
PROS vs CONS
Accepting this career professional opportunity comes with I think more pros than cons. Here are a few items to consider:
- Work with Gold medal winning athletes
- Work in a completely different part of the world
- Personal / professional growth
- Relationships that can last a lifetime (with coaches/athletes)
- Being separated from your spouse or significant other (my situation did not include any family housing being covered)
- At times being uncomfortable due to language barrier, culture, etc.
LONG TRACK vs SHORT TRACK – comparing both experiences (in Beijing)
Earlier I mentioned that I considered being moved from the Long Track team to the Short Track team a promotion. Since China began competing in the Winter Olympics in 1980, Short Track Speed Skating won 10 of the country’s overall 13 Gold Medals (not including their 2 Gold medals in the 2022 Games). Having worked for both, I can honestly say, during my time in China, there was clearly a huge difference in how the teams were treated (athlete dorms, dining halls, and training facilities - in different locations in Beijing). I was incredibly fortunate, and thankful to have been sent to Short Track so that I could experience both sides of the overall Speed Skating team. To be fair however, a beautiful indoor ice training oval was completed in October 2019 for the Long Track team. New athlete dorms and training facilities were also being completed in the same compound at that time. So, their training dynamics are likely much different now. And the Long Track team should also be treated a little more equal now since claiming an Olympic Gold medal in the Men’s 500 meter.
**The night I was moved to the Chinese National Short Track Speed Skating team
– December 11, 2019 (The We Chat text from Diana, Director Meng’s Assistant)
Short Track – Athlete Dorm – Shougang (Beijing)
Long Track – The Dorm at the Shooting & Archery Base - Beijing
**See the Long vs Short Track comparison photos in “Food” For Thought
Short Track (A) - Shougang
Short Track (B) - Shougang
Long Track – Shooting & Archery Base
END PART 3
In PART 4 (our final chapter), we will cover: The Odd Things I Witnessed, Testimonials From Former Chinese Foreign Sports Performance & Rehab Staff, and The Lasting Images and The Unforgettable Sights and Sounds.