All photos by Rick Yi, Taiwan News
"Pull!" shouts the coach. "One-two, one-two!" A bunch of teenage girls in heavy boots grip the rope firmly, drive the heels of their left feet into the ground and lean their bodies backward to a 45-degree angle, and begin to heave in unison.
The above is a scene from a practice session for Taipei Jingmei Girls High School's tug-of-war team. The team has their sights set on trying out for the upcoming outdoor games World Championships 2010 in South Africa after grabbing several world indoor titles earlier this year.
"Our team has, to a certain extent, already stood at the top in the indoor class," noted Jingmei Girls High School Principal Lin Li-hwa during an interview July 7, adding, "now it's time for us to make an attempt on the outdoor ones."
The Pride of Taiwan
On February 27, Taiwan's national tug-of-war team from Jingmei Girls High School won the title in the 540-kilogram class at the World Indoor Championships 2010 held in Italy, beating rivals from China, Japan and Switzerland.
"We're afraid to lose a match," recalled current team leader Wang Jo-tsun, one of the pullers in the game, when they lost to China in the first round of the championship.
"But our coach successfully calmed us down by saying that there were still two more rounds." They later swept the following two rounds and brought home the gold.
Wang said that winning the matches inspired great gratitude toward coach Kuo Sheng, the school faculty and her parents, who had given the team great material and spiritual support.
Not long afterwards, the young pullers marched off to South Korean, where they once again out-pulled their rivals to claim another victory at the Asian Cup Tug-of-War Championships on April 9.
Now, with some tuggers graduated and some new blood added, the award-winning team is ceaselessly practicing for the tryouts at the end of July, hoping to represent Taiwan in the World Championships scheduled in September in South Africa.
Training, training, training
Under the killing sun, the rounds of practice continue.
One side of the training ground is equipped with a gantry where the whole team pulls a weight up and down to strengthen their muscular endurance. Spare pullers are standing by the front of the rope, ready to grab it and slow it down if needed.
That's exactly how these young girls spend their holidays while other pupils are filling their summer vacation with all kinds of fun. "People without resolution and persistence can hardly withstand the harsh training," said Lin.
"Most of the team members are from underprivileged family in southern and central Taiwan," said Lin in an emotional tone. She continued that "they have cheerful personalities and work hard to master the sport."
Unfolding her hands, both of Wang's palms are inscribed with traces of lots of drilling - swollen joints, calluses and ground-in dirt, gradually built up through hours of physically taxing rope-pulling technique training day after day after day.
Lack of funding means the team has to practice in a difficult environment. They drill on a small patch of grass, over which hangs a blue and white striped canvas to block out the sun and rain, and they have to endure harassment from insects that lurk in the grass.
Tug of war is an exceedingly strenuous sport, and training for it can be very physically demanding. Many newcomers fail to survive summer training and quit not long after they begin.
"Rope pulling is actually a comparatively monotonous sport that offers delayed feedback," noted Kuo, who has coached the tug of war team for seven years. His devotion won him the award of 2010 Taipei City's distinguished teacher in the special education category.
"Though the team has virtually perfected its indoor game skills, everything from the venue and equipment to tactics is very much different in the outdoor game," indicated Kuo.
What Kuo worries about is obvious as the gantry, set up for muscular endurance training, is pegged at no more than 500 kg - almost half of what the team can achieve in indoor practice.
We are family
Practice makes perfect. Still, frustration is inevitable. "Even as we're becoming more familiar with this sport, we feel even worse when we fail to achieve a better performance," said Wang.
Hailing from rural Nantou, Wang, who was just appointed as team leader after reaching her senior year in school, said that beyond the hard physical effort demanded of the individual, tug of war is also a sport that requires the highest order of self-discipline and teamwork.
"My biggest wish now is that we can pass the tryout and be selected the national representative team," said Wang.
With her status changed from team member to team leader, Wang said she felt a greater obligation to encourage and remind her team of every detail, saying that "newcomers sometimes can't get used to the training in the beginning."
Living in the school dormitory, the whole team has built a close connection to each other. "I'd be lying if I said we never quarrel," says team member Chang Zhih-ning, "but we get along well by expressing our emotions frankly."
"Our coach always gives us encouragement whenever we need it," said Chang, adding that "though he's strict in training us." The whole team and the coach have therefore created a close bond among themselves.
Pull for a better future
Building strength and stamina and perfecting the technique of the team are the top priorities for Kuo, although he also expresses concern over the expense of traveling to South Africa once they pass the tryout.
That's the reality Jingmei Girls High School's tug of war team faces - and indeed, one that most individual and team players face today in Taiwan. Insufficient funding forces schools to raise money every time a team goes out for a competition.
To solve this problem, Principal Lin has offered one suggestion, saying that "I hope local enterprises can sponsor the team, which would help to sustain their development." Moreover, Lin has also called on the Ministry of Education to provide tuition-free college courses for students.
"Every year when a new semester begins, I worry about their premiums," said Lin. Coming from comparatively low-income families, most team members have trouble paying the tuition. If they have to work to pay their tuition, that only increases their burden.
For these young tuggers, they are driven by the knowledge that they are pulling on ropes that will not only win them shiny gold medals and glory, but also bring the hopes of a better future.
All photos by Rick Yi, Taiwan News