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Visiting scholars tap IU expertise to help athletes during -- and after -- their sports careers

Chen Zhong and Zhu Dan know a little something about dedication, elite athletic performance . . . and pain. As celebrated Olympic champions in China, both endured a host of injuries during their highly successful athletic careers, which they began as children. As visiting scholars at Indiana University, they can take a long -- and less painful -- view of athletic injuries, physical education and the important balance between athletics and academics.

Chen spoke with a note of amusement about one American rehabilitation convention: cool water baths. She finds the chilling practice, during which athletes submerge their bodies or assorted parts in cold water (lower 60s F), fascinating -- and unappealing.

"In China, people don't like cool water, so this is very interesting," she said through a translator, sitting in the lobby at the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at IU Bloomington. "Massage is more common in China."

A degree of anonymity, the slower pace of a college town (compared to Beijing), and a welcomed Midwest congeniality has enhanced a year of study that could affect how they teach and help other athletes when the scholars return to Beijing Sport University (BSU). The visiting scholars program supports their graduate studies at BSU.

"Here the professors' attitudes toward the students are very different," Zhu said through a translator. "They ask how students are doing; they encourage students to learn and ask questions. I like this American style because students are more willing to study. They have more passion."

Zhu and Chen are members of the BSU Champion Class, which helps Chinese world champion athletes and coaches pursue graduate studies to prepare for their careers after athletic retirement. The 2010-2011 academic year, for which Zhu and Chen traveled to IU Bloomington, is the first year that members of the BSU Champion Class have come to do research and study in the United States. One group studied at the University of Wisconsin. Zhu, Chen and two other Olympians, Chou Tao and Wang Xu, studied at the School of HPER. BSU and the School of HPER have a collaborative relationship dating to 1989.

Chen is the first Chinese athlete to medal in taekwondo, winning gold medals at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Zhu and Chou were members of the rhythmic gymnastics team that earned a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Wang won a gold medal in women's wrestling at the Olympic Games in Athens.

Chen, who left Bloomington this week, met with professors, IU coaches and others to talk about how the university balances student-athletes' training with academics. She said the major point for her is that American universities are responsible for their students and try to help them with the academic side of college. In China, she said, there needs to be more attention to athletes' academic progress so that the athletes have more career opportunities after college and their athletic careers. She plans to work at BSU after graduation and is particularly interested in sports management and physical education.

"In China, athletes spend so much time training that they don't have time for academics," Chen said.

She also was struck by the way U.S. coaches and athletic trainers want athletes to be mentally healthy, not just physically strong.

Zhu has been comparing Gua Sha, an ancient 'skin scraping' technique used in China, with the Graston Technique, a more scientifically based therapy used in the U.S. to treat athletic injuries. She has been working with John Schrader, professor of athletic training in the School of HPER's Department of Kinesiology, to compare and contrast these two practices, which use stones and metal implements respectively to massage certain sports injuries. She said she would like to continue this work when she returns to China in October.

After graduation, Zhu would like to teach classes in rhythmic gymnastics and physical education at BSU, employing the more active and interactive American teaching style. At the School of HPER, for example, students often play games and participate in athletic activities during physical education classes -- in China, similar classes are taught in a classroom setting.

Both women have enjoyed the slower pace of Bloomington, although it took some getting used to for Chen, who says she has now "totally fallen in love" with the city. Both say that people they have met have been kind and friendly. Zhu is impressed with the workout equipment at the Student Recreational Sports Center and the "athletic culture" of the area, with so many people jogging and cycling around the city and campus for exercise. And then there's the scenery.

"Before I came to the U.S., I thought BSU had a lot of trees -- then I saw IU," she said.