When Bill Freeland jogged through the streets of Beijing at 6 a.m., what he saw mesmerized him.
All over town on street corners, in tiny parks and in huge ones, men and women, many well past retirement age, seemed to float through their morning exercises. The slow-and-easy arm and leg movements of tai ji quan (pronounced tie-chee-kwan) seemed to slow down time.
Part of Freeland wished he knew more about tai ji, as it is commonly known, so he could join them. But, Freeland said, another part ofhim just wanted to watch the beauty of a Chinese tradition that is supposed to be the perfect blend of mind, spirit and body.
"Someonewrote that it's as quiet as a cat walks, and it is," said the William S. James Elementary School physical education teacher. "It's so graceful and so flowing. There's no stiffness about it. Everything they did was smooth and easy. That really impressed me how the older people would get out there every morning."
During his two weeks in China earlier this month, Freeland had a chance to see training facilities for elite athletes as well as everyday facilities in schools and work places. On tour with other phys-ed teachers from around the UnitedStates, Freeland visited Beijing, Shantou and Guangzhou. He also took a short jaunt to Hong Kong.
Throughout the entire trip, sponsored by the Seattle-based Citizen Ambassador Program, Freeland was most captivated by thoroughly Chinese forms of fitness and sport.
The Havre de Grace father of three brought home a shuttlecock, somewhat bigger than a badminton birdie and with a heavier base. It's used like a Hacky Sack by the Chinese. "I would like to have this (game) here. It's the type of game that kids could pick up quickly, and it can be used in a small area."
On a higher skill level, the same shuttlecock is used in jian qui, a game that seems a strange combination of volleyball and soccer. Playing on a court with a net, athletes cannot let the shuttlecock touch their arms or hands. Even spiking is done with the feet.
"That's just the most amazing thing," said Freeland. "They can really get up and spike that thing with their feet. I mean they just turn themselves over in the air."
Freeland was similarlyfascinated by the martial arts form of whu shu. On a visit to a sports center in Guangzhou, Freeland saw the sport performed with sticks and swords by national champions as well as fifth- or sixth-graders.
Those youngsters, like others targeted for elite sports programs in China, began their educations in elementary schools similar to those in the United States. But as they get older, explained Freeland, children who showed athletic promise were selected to attend special regional sports schools.
Not all of them become internationally competitive athletes. Some go on to become phys-ed teachers, trainers andcoaches.
Even those youngsters in China who don't go on to concentrate on sports education must pass a fitness test that includes the 400-meter run, standing broad jump, sit-ups and rope jumping. To passthe rope-jumping test, girls have to jump 125 times per minute and boys have to jump 120 times, said
Freeland, who helped his studentsback home raise $7,500 for the American Heart Association in last month's Jump Rope For Heart.
"That (fitness) test is really crucial," said Freeland, a lifelong fitness buff. "If they don't pass it, they may lose a scholarship or not get into college at all."
In China, the emphasis on staying in shape doesn't disappear between graduation and retirement. At first, the absence of younger people in morning tai ji puzzled Freeland. He soon discovered why.
"I asked our interpreter 'how come you see the older people and not the young ones?'He told me that, time-wise, the younger people are so busy with workand their families and doing other things, that the chance for them to get out and do it is practically nonexistent."
Many workplaces make up for demands on workers' time by offering them a chance to exercise before work, after work or at lunch-time. Freeland saw some aerobics classes, volleyball games and weight training.
"A lot of companies here in the United States should sit back and say, 'wait a minute.' These people have something going here. If we can keep our people healthy, have them play a little rec volleyball or do aerobics or just go out and walk, we won't have to pay out so much money in health insurance, and we'd have a healthier society."
Although most of his trip was concentrated on observing sports and fitness in China, Freeland did get a chance to visit some of the world's most fascinating historical spots, including Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall of China. At times, he found himself overwhelmed.
"Just to be standing there, on the Great Wall. I couldn't think about anything but the history there," said Freeland, who hopes eventually to take his wife, Cassie, and children, Jennifer, 17; Bryan, 11; and Amanda, 8; for a return trip.