By Anthony Boadle
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – China’s young women’s volleyball team overcame a surging Serbian side on Saturday in four sets to take their country’s third Olympic gold medal in the sport.
Serbia was competing for the first time for an Olympic medal and had beaten China in the preliminary round, but the Asian powerhouse prevailed in the final by 19-25 25-17 25-22 25-23.
The United States won bronze earlier on Saturday after beating the Netherlands, a consolation for the world’s top-ranked team in their pursuit of an elusive gold.
China, coached by former top player Lang Ping, last won the gold medal in Athens in 2004. They won their first gold in Los Angeles in 1984 when Lang was on the team.
“Before the tournament we never thought we could win the gold,” Lang, who coached the United States to a silver medal in 2008, told reporters after the match. “I think we were lucky.
“Our young players did not play well at the beginning, but they did at the important moment.”
Serbia won the opening set with powerful serves and spikes by top scorer Brankica Mihajlovic, but China took control of the match in the key third set.
Serbia beat off an 8-point run by China and went down to an unstoppable spike by top Chinese scorer Zhu Ting.
Serbia eliminated Russia in the quarter-finals and then dispatched the favorites, the United States, from the Rio Games on Thursday in a five-set upset when the U.S. team lost their top scorer Foluke Akinradewo to a leg injury.
With their star middle blocker back on the court on Saturday, the Americans beat the Dutch women 25-23 25-27 25-22 25-19 in the bronze medal match.
Akinradewo said some therapy on her left leg put her back in competition for the bronze medal game, as she shed a tear over missing another opportunity to capture the gold.
“That’s what we want, of course. No team comes here not wanting to win the gold,” she told Reuters. “But this bronze is just as special for me because we were able to fight back from a disappointing loss. We were so close,” she said.
The United States reached the finals in the two previous Olympics in London and Beijing, but were defeated by Brazil both times.
At the Beijing Olympics, the U.S. team coached by Lang beat China in the semi-final, cementing her reputation as one of the best women’s volleyball coaches.
Lang, 55, won her second gold on Saturday, this time as the coach of young crop of Chinese athletes that had a shaky start in Rio with losses to the Netherlands and Serbia.
“With a young team, you never know. One day is great, the next is not,” Lang said. “We have to be patient and just had to go one game at a time.
“I am very happy for the young girls. They trained so hard.”
(Editing by Bill Rigby/Meredith Mazzilli/Sudipto Ganguly)