Jingmei Girls' Tug-of-War Team
The Long Haul to Glory
Fourteen teenage girls, their features still childlike but their hands callused like construction workers, have shown the grit it takes to beat the most formidable athletes from around the globe.
The Long Haul to GloryBy Hsiu-tzu Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 494 )
Both hands tightly gripping the rope, the members of the Taipei Jingmei Girls' Senior High School tug-of-war team "seckilled" their much taller European opponents in under a minute, clinching an almost instantaneous victory. Abrasions and thick calluses on the girls' palms show that such victories come at a price.
Since 2010 these girls in the full bloom of youth – between 16 and 17 years of age – have won seven championships, making it to world No. 1.
These young world champions not only battle powerful tug-of-war opponents from around the globe, but also wage a daily struggle against the lonely, often monotonous routine of daily practice, striving to build strength and stamina without giving up.
Clad in yellow school uniforms, droves of high school girls noisily flood out the school doors heading home at 4:30 p.m. The sports field at the other end of the campus lies dormant in the rain. But the third floor of the school's activity center is teeming with activity as the volleyball and tug-of-war teams meet for their daily training sessions.
The rope pullers have just finished their warm-up exercises, whereas the volleyballers are already starting to leave. Suddenly, the only sounds heard in the cavernous activity center, which can accommodate 2,000 people, are the 14 girls' rhythmic chants: "Hey-Ho, Hey-Ho, Hey-Ho, Hey!"
In February this year, the Jingmei team, whose members have an average height of just 160 cm, won the World Indoor Tug of War Championships in Perth, Scotland. In just two-and-a-half minutes, the girls defeated the much taller pullers from the English team, winning the world championships for the second time in a row.
Behind the team's performance during these crucial two and a half minutes are four hours of daily practice, 365 days a year without a single day off.
Chen Tzu-rong, who is in her sophomore year, used to be the typical pampered girl who relies on her parents to get up on time in the morning and gets chauffeured to and from school every day. Now she gets up in the morning all by herself and joins her teammates for morning exercises at 5 a.m.
The palms of the slim, petite student are covered with scrapes and scars. "In my freshman year I cried at the dormitory every night, but I didn't want to give up halfway. After waking up with teary eyes, I still went to practice the next day," Chen recalls.
The school's tug-of-war team was founded in 1994 to meet the policy goals of the tug-of-war committee under the Taipei City Sports Federation. Much to everyone's surprise the highschoolers won an international competition in 2000, the Asian Cup Tug-of-War Championships in the junior women's group, which brought them overnight fame.
Stable Weight, Healthy Nutrition, No Dating
Jingmei Girls' Senior High School does not have a specialized program in athletics. Instead, the gifted student athletes who make up the team, recruited from junior high schools across Taiwan, are spread out in different classes in each grade and study the full curriculum. Like all the other students, the young athletes must attend a full day of classes before starting their daily training.
The difference is that all 14 tug-of-war team members are boarding students. They meet for morning exercises before class and work on pulling technique, tactics, strength and stamina during a three-hour practice session after school. While others rest and relax during the winter and summer breaks, the pullers put in full-day practice sessions. Before practice, every girl has to weigh in. They have a strict dietary regimen, and no romantic relationships are allowed.
As freshman Chang Ti-chen explains, "We can't allow personal emotions to affect the team." Tug-of-war is a sport that requires teamwork and team spirit of the highest order. There is no room for individual mistakes.
In junior high school the sports-loving Chang excelled at tug-of-war, track and field, and fencing. Eventually she decided to devote her athletic talent to the tug-of-war team. "Team discipline has improved my originally sloppy attitude toward doing things. Also, the team gives me great encouragement when I face obstacles and think of giving up," Chang says.
Kids who love sports and team practice could choose basketball, volleyball or tennis, which steal the limelight away from little-noticed tug-of-war. Why would teenagers in the prime of their lives opt for a sport as unpopular and uncool as this?
Coach Kuo Sheng, who is in his late thirties, knows that rope pulling takes particular devotion: "Students who are willing to stick with tug-of-war are super passionate about the sport."
Kuo has coached the team for the past 13 years. As a student Kuo dreamed of joining one of the popular sports teams at his school. But he frankly admits that his short stature prevented him from being picked for the basketball or volleyball teams. The last remaining option was tug-of-war.
Rope pulling exercises are boring and repetitive. And hard training does not necessarily translate into immediate results. "You must be able to put up with loneliness to stand a chance of success," Kuo believes.
Although the girls have an unshakable passion for their sport, they often find it hard to keep up their hard work, given the monotonous practice routines day in and out. Every year one or two students tearfully drop out of the team. Those who continue with the tough practice regime work not only on steeling their bodies and honing their pulling technique, but also on developing an iron will and firm determination not to give up.
During their training the athletes pull heavy, black iron weights up and down a ceiling-high gantry. Each student is required to pull 90 kgs on average during each training session and hold it in place, keeping the weights from dropping for up to 20 minutes. Instead of fighting live opponents, they engage in a silent tug-of-war with their training equipment.
The girls have broken several sports stereotypes: The tenet that only tall athletes have great strength has been proven wrong. They have also shown that great strength is not the only thing that it takes to become a winning team.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz