China's Chen crosses pain barrier

BEIJING (Reuters) - When China’s Chen Zhong won her second consecutive heavyweight Olympic gold medal in taekwondo, she felt the most blessed person in the world.

She also felt emotionally and physically drained and ready to forfeit the chance to defend her title on home soil.

Four years on, and a 2007 world championship under her belt, the 25-year-old is carrying her battle-scarred body into battle once again in Beijing.

Chen, who won gold in Sydney as a doe-eyed 17-year-old, is bidding to become the first Chinese athlete to defend an Olympic title twice.

“I’m still going out there with a mind to win gold, to go all out to win glory once again for the motherland,” Chen told local media before winning the 2008 Asian title.

A 13-year career has left the 1.83-metre fighter’s right knee pocked with syringe marks and surgical scars. She is no stranger to pain and bypassed knee surgery to defend her title in Athens.

There, carrying a 6-3 lead over France’s Myriam Baverel after two rounds of their championship bout, Chen attacked rather than trying to cruise to victory in the final round, and doubled her score.

Chen has promised more of the same in Beijing and says she is in great shape. Like many elite Chinese athletes, Chen’s iron will was forged in the gymnasiums of state-run sport schools.

Raised in the province of Henan, the 12-year-old Chen was plucked from a basketball college and sent to an elite martial arts college in Beijing, where she would do more than 1,000 kicks a day and beg her mother to let her go home.

Weeks after her 16th birthday, Chen won a bronze medal at the 1998 Asian Games. She refused to leave the mat for almost an hour in protest at the referee’s decision to award the semi-final to her South Korean opponent.

Chen has signaled she will leave the mat for good after August’s Games.

“I’m a single girl who has wandered around for 10 years,” she said. “My parents want me to settle down.”

Editing by Ed Osmond