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Friday, September 15, 2000

Luan's will can't be foiled

  SYDNEY -- They came for Jujie Luan when she was 16 and an outstanding high jumper in her native China.

 But the Nanjing area already had promising track stars.

 Quit track, go to badminton.

 She excelled, but someone decided the badminton team was strong and she should learn to fence.

 Jujie Luan said no.

 The officials talked to her parents, who said yes.

 She said no again.

 The coaches were waiting for her at school.

 "Fencing," they said.

 "No," Luan said.

 She was kicked off the badminton team and while she reluctantly picked up the foil, her loathing for it only deepened.

 "I hated it," said the 42-year-old Edmonton resident, who will march into the Olympic Stadium as the most accomplished fencer to wear Canadian colours and still a potent Chinese national hero.

 "I would be hit with the foil, hit and hit, and I would run away."

 But there was one inducement for which Luan had no defence. As an athlete, she would be eligible to travel to faraway Beijing, the rest of Asia and, perhaps, the world. And so, after months of resistance and half-hearted training, she took up her foil in earnest and began to hit back.

 Today she is a mother of three children -- ages nine, six and two. She also is out of athletic retirement after a dozen years on the sidelines. She is the oldest competitor in the women's draw and has been training for less than a year. The sport she once dominated has changed dramatically, judges may well find her style a stale classic. Early in the draw she will be pitted against the top seeds in the world.

 Luan's third Olympics and first for Canada may last only one match when the competition begins Wednesday.

 "She is a long shot for a medal," national team coach Manuel Guittet said, "but she has proved with a little time this year on the circuit that she can beat the best."

 Here is why, with seemingly every possible element lined up against her, you should not yet put spade to dirt for Luan's second burial as an athlete: Her will is without borders.

 They still study Luan in Chinese textbooks for what she did as a 20-year-old at the 1977 world junior championships. In her first match, the foil of a Russian snapped and stabbed through Luan's left arm, her foil arm.

 "You see these marks?" she said, pointing to dime-size scars under her biceps. "This is where the foil went in."

 Fencing has rigorous injury standards. They pulled the metal out of her arm and the clock started ticking. The cut was clean so Luan continued. She fenced for 21/2 hours. Her arm turned blue from the deep bleeding. "But I had to try and finish," she said. "China had not had a female fencer at the worlds in more than 80 years."

 Luan won a silver medal and the Chinese had a new hero. Books were written about her. A movie chronicled her life.

 The foil, once her enemy, was now her Excalibur. Even her suitor, a quiet Chinese man named David, would have to wait. In 1982 she told him they would not be together unless she finished in the top six at the world championships. She was hedging her bets, for she loved him even then, and she finished second.

 "Then, in 1982, I told him if I didn't get a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, we would not be married. I wanted to earn the gold in fencing for the gold on my finger. It made me work that much harder."

 She won the gold at Los Angeles in 1984.

 Her first retirement came after a 16th-place finish at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Jujie and David married and moved to Canada, where she could teach fencing and escape the demands of the Chinese state.

 But even as she taught, her feet and hands stayed true. Determined to find out what remained, she resumed training and won a spot on the national team.

 Now, after a month of training in China, she is ready to compete against athletes half her age.

 "I don't know how I will do," the woman who staked her marriage on a medal said. "With competition you never know."

 And then, Luan said the words she choked out half a lifetime ago to the sports officials back in China, the ones who put her on the road to fame and stardom.

 "I will try." Jujie Luan said.