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Chinese Athletes Debut at Millrose

February 4, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ Long before pole vaulting became an accepted event for women, Chinese coaches were recruiting women and grooming them for world competition.

Two of the pioneers, former world record-holders Sun Caiyun and Cai Weiyan, along with half-miler Zhang Jian, will become the first Chinese-born athletes to compete in the prestigious Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.

One other Chinese athlete, hurdler Tong Li, who was born in the United States and changed his name to Tony Lee, was a Millrose competitor during the early 1980s. Another Chinese athlete, high jumper Zhu Jianhua, competed in the Garden, but never in the Millrose Games.

``It’s a privilege we are the first team to participate in this meet,″ Sun said Wednesday through a translator, Zhou Xinmin, the team manager.

The vaulters have impressive credentials.

Sun, 25, set the world indoor record 11 times and the world outdoor record six times, many before the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the world governing body, recognized the event. She became the first 14-foot vaulter in 1996, the 1994 Goodwill Games champion, the fourth-place finisher at the 1997 World Outdoor Championships and won Chinese titles in 1992, 1993 and 1996.

Cai, also 25 and a former gymnast and acrobat, set the world outdoor record of 13-4 1/4 in 1995. She since has raised her best to 14-3 1/4 indoors, won the bronze medal at the 1997 World Indoor Championships and took the silver medal at the 1997 World University Games.

Next year, the women’s pole vault will become an Olympic event for the first time.

The two women, who are from different provinces in China, began their vaulting careers in 1987, when each was 14. Both started under similar circumstances.

They were competing in other sports when track and field coaches spotted their talents and suggested they try vaulting.

``Before that, I had no idea about pole vaulting,″ Sun said. ``The coach realized there were only men pole vaulters in the world.″

Her coach, Liu Huiguang, liked her size (she was 5-6 then, she’s 5-7 now) and athleticism, since she participated in many sports, most often basketball.

``At the beginning, I was too thin and lacked strength,″ said Sun, whose first clearance was 9-2 1/4. ``The coach then gave me special strength training.″

Cai was persuaded to become a vaulter by a coach who noticed her talent during an acrobatics competition. Previously, the coach discovered a men’s vaulter from the acrobatic ranks and he was making good progress, so he figured a woman also would do well.

``He asked if I was afraid,″ Cai said through Zhou. ``I said no. I found it exciting.″

The height Cai first cleared was 10-4, but not until after months of trying.

``Men have gone 6 meters (19-8 1/4), women can go 5 meters (16-4 3/4),″ Sun said.

The women’s world outdoor record is 15-0 3/4 by Australia’s Emma George, a former circus performer. Sergei Bubka is the men’s world record-holder, at 20-1 3/4.

The Chinese vaulters took some needling when they began their new sport.

``My friends said it was a men’s sport, not fit for women,″ Sun said. ``Now, they think I made the right choice.″

``When I started practicing the pole vault, some girls said it was a dangerous sport,″ Cai said. ``The coach wanted other girls, but they were afraid. I wasn’t afraid.

``Now, there are more and more women getting into the event.″

The two estimate there are about 100 women vaulters in China, although Sun and Cai still are the best.

Neither is bothered by the flashy outfits many vaulters wore last year during competitions, causing some controversy because of their skimpiness.

``They’re easier to run and jump in,″ Sun said. ``We don’t think about them much during competition.″

Friday night, the Chinese, neither of whom is ranked among the top 10 now, will face a field that includes the Czech Republic’s Daniela Bartova, another former world record-holder and ranked No. 4 in the world, and Russia’s Yelena Belyakova, the 1998 Goodwill Games champion and No. 2 in the world.

Zhang will compete in the 800 meters against six-time Millrose winner Joetta Clark and Olympian Meredith Rainey.

The appearances by the Chinese athletes will mark another historic night for the Millrose Games, which has been filled with them over 92 years.

Sunday, the Chinese will compete in the New Balance Invitational at Boston. Meet director Mark Wettmore was responsible for bringing them to the United States.

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