China may have never come close to any medal in Para Ice Hockey so far at a Paralympic Winter Games but the hosts are now eyeing the biggest scalp of them all at Beijing 2022.
After scoring three straight wins in as many group games and beating the Czech Republic in the last-eight at the Beijing National Indoor Stadium, China are hoping for an encore when they meet four-time champions the USA in the second semi-final on Friday (11 March).
Having exceeded expectations by reaching the semi-finals for the first time, China are now aiming to make history at home by winning their maiden medal in Para Ice Hockey at the Winter Paralympics.
On their way to the historic feat, the hosts scored back-to-back wins –a 7-0 triumph against Slovakia followed by a 5-2 victory over the Czech Republic- before hammering Italy 6-0.
With three straight wins in as many group games, China had qualified for the quarterfinals, where they defeated the Czech Republic 4-3 to set up a semi-final clash against the USA, who have never let the gold slip from their grasp after winning at Vancouver 2010.
The US won at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Paralympics. They had taken their maiden title at home in Salt Lake City in 2002 and are the most successful nation in the sport with four golds and a bronze (Turin 2006).
Speaking about how he felt following the thrilling quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic, Chinese capitain Cui Yutao said: “I am worn out now. We didn’t expect the game to be this tough. Though we have prepared well, we played really tough.
"They (Czech Republic) equalized the score twice, but we are not afraid of any team. All we have to do is to try our best to win the game. This shows the perseverance of the Chinese Para Ice Hockey team.”
On hugging the Czech players at the end of the game, Cui added: “We are competitors on the ice, but friends off the ice. They travelled such a long journey to compete here in China.
“There is always one side to win and the other side to lose, that is the cruelty of competitive sports.
"Friendship always comes first, competition second.”
Speaking about the prospects of the next match, Cui's teammate Wang Zhidong said: "Each game we treat as an opportunity to fight as hard as we can, to win the game. It is not a matter of who is strong, who is weak, we need to work as we can.
"We need to be serious, treat every game seriously. We care about the process."
Girl power to the fore
Playing in front of a home crowd is a different ballgame altogether.
In the match against Italy, Chinese player Yu Jing played five minutes in the second period to join Norwegians Brit Mjaasund Oeyen and Lena Schroeder as the only female player to have competed in Para Ice Hockey at the Winter Paralympics.
ⒸSteph Chambers/Getty Images
Having made history, Yu hopes to inspire many more women to take up the sport.
"Maybe more and more girls will join Para Ice Hockey now. I want to show that girls can compete. It is not impossible, it's possible," the 38-year-old said. Yu nonetheless admitted she was initially a bit skeptical to take up the sport.
“I felt a little bit afraid. But when I joined the team, I found the guys were very nice and they taught me a lot," explained Yu, a former Wheelchair Basketball player who switched to Para Ice Hockey more than two years ago and took an instant liking to the sport. She made her debut for the national team at the World Championships last year.
Having achieved their first target, the Chinese team is now facing its biggest hurdle in the Paralympic Winter Games. Can they get past the USA too and make more history?