Dan Rafael knew curling had hit the big time in China when he boarded a train in Harbin over the summer.
The Montreal native, who serves as China’s national curling coach, guided Bingyu Wang to the country’s first world title of any kind at the world women’s championship last March in South Korea.
A fringe sport at best in China, curling has taken off since Wang, third Yin Liu, second Qingshuang Yue and lead Zan Zhou claimed the world title, on the heels of winning the Winter Universiade gold a few weeks earlier in their home base of Harbin.
“There’s a huge awareness now,” Rafael said Friday as he watched the Chinese lose their opener, 7-6 to Yellowknife’s Kerry Galusha in opening-day action at the Grand Slam Trail Appliances Women’s Curling Classic at the Calgary Curling Club.
“Just as an example, when we took the train from Harbin to Beijing (en route to an event in New Zealand), as I boarded with my luggage, I could hear a bunch of kids whispering my name. And they all came over and we were signing autographs.”
Pretty heady stuff for the longtime coach, who’s been given the task of making sure Wang’s team carries its 2009 momentum into the 2010 Winter Olympics next February in Vancouver.
As for Wang, it’s been a whirlwind few months. In between training sessions, the team, which is paid to curl and train full time by the Chinese government, conducted countless interviews and grew used to being recognized in public.
“There have been so many differences in the last year, and it feels so cool,” said Wang, who turned 25 on Wednesday. “But we’ve been so busy. We did so many interviews, but we had to say no sometimes to keep sane.
“It’s so great. People recognize you, and they say, ‘Your team’s so great, keep going and work hard.’ It feels good to know so many people are cheering for us.”
Not only are they cheering for them, but with the world-championship pedigree — Wang finished second to Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones a year earlier — fans and sports officials are developing expectations that this team will win a medal at Vancouver. But Rafael is trying to keep the focus on the here and now.
“The expectations are different,” said Rafael. “ ‘You represent China. We have Olympic champions coming out the wazoo. You can be part of that.’ Yadda, yadda, yadda. It’s all really stuff that you don’t need to hear. We had a good meeting about it today, and I just told them to go back to doing the stuff you used to do.
“The world championship is in the past and the Olympics are in the future, and there’s a ton of present to go through.”