Former Steel Roses goalkeeper Gao Hong excelled at two FIFA Women's World Cups
She returned as China’s coach at the 2014 U-17 Women's World Cup
Now a youth development mentor, ‘Happy football’ is her philosophy
While many are strained by pressure, Gao Hong positively revels in it. Such optimism has characterised the former long-serving China PR goalkeeper throughout her illustrious career, perhaps most memorably in her first FIFA Women's World Cup Sweden 1995™.
Gao was a last-minute inclusion for an ambitious China side heading to just the second edition of the women's global football extravaganza. The custodian, then 27-years-old and plying her trade with Japanese club Takalasuka, entered the tournament as a back-up to regular No1 Zhong Honglian.
Gao had to warm the bench as the Steel Roses claimed an impressive 3-3 draw against defending champions USA, before defeating Australia 4-2. With the results enough to see them through, coach Ma Yuanan could afford to rest first-choice Zhong and start Gao in the final group game against Denmark.
Gao duly seized the opportunity, excelling between the sticks as China rounded off their group campaign with a 3-1 victory. In fact, her displays impressed the coach so much that she was given another starting chance - against hosts Sweden in the crucial last-eight meeting.
"I was in the twilight of my career but suddenly I was told to start [against Sweden],” Gao told FIFA.com. “All that I was thinking was to give my all and play a game which I could fully enjoy."
Enjoy she did. Gao continued her brilliant form and after scores were locked at 1-1 a pivotal penalty shoot-out loomed. Gao duly delivered in the big moment, denying both Malin Andersson and Annika Nessvold to send China into the last four at the expense of the home team, and avenging their 1-0 loss at the same stage four years ago in the inaugural edition in China.
"I was feeling real pleasure throughout the normal period and extra time. And such a mood lasted into the penalty shoot-out. I was not a spot-kick stopping specialist. What I was doing was to focus all my attention, seeking the (key) moment and making the saves."
She had entered the campaign facing retirement, but ended up established as the team's new first choice. Amazingly, her career took off just when it seemed about to end. And she played a key role as China won silver at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Atlanta 1996, before finishing runners-up at the famed 1999 tournament in the United States.
In 2000, Gao moved to stateside joining WUSA side New York Power, recording 87 saves with a 1.11 goals against average in her first season. It was during that period that her perspective broadened.
"I had two pleasant seasons with New York Power,” she said. “The team consisted of players coming from across the world. We spoke different languages but football united us. The competition level of WUSA was very high and the tempo was fast. I really enjoyed the games and I made progress. My life there enlightened me about the game and beyond."
Gao hanged up her boots in 2003 and spent a few quiet years in Canada. Her love for football, however, never faded and in 2009 announced a return to the game with sights set on management. She began with taking a sports science course at University of Worcester of UK where she received a master degree. Meanwhile, Gao travelled across Europe, paying visits to FAs and clubs of England, Germany and Sweden meeting some of the world's elite coaches.
"I spoke to a series of famous managers, including former Germany coach Tina Theune, Sweden's Marika Domanski and Mo Marley from the England FA. I owe big thanks to all of them for giving generous help and advice to me. Particularly, their charisma, professionalism and commitment provided me inspiration during my pursuit of a managerial career," she said.
Gao made such remarkable progress in coaching that she was appointed head coach of China’s youth team for the 2014 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Costa Rica.
"It was so nice to return to the FIFA tournaments,” she said. “Before I appeared in the Women's World Cup as a player but this time I was a coach. When I listened to the FIFA anthem, I was very excited. I just felt as if I were back to the old times as a player.”
Gao continued her work with youth development thereafter and last year she became a lecturer in 'Chasing Wind’ program, a local project aimed at helping youth coaches and youngsters.
"My approach is to try to make the youngsters aware that football can make you happy. Each kid is unique and we should respect their difference, educating them based on their own interests and strengths. We should give each child a chance and inspire them to play with interest. Training and playing can be hard but mentally they will enjoy it."
Gao has cut a brave, confident figure both on and off the pitch down the years. While 'happy football' has become her life motto, there have been occasions of sadness, none more so than narrowly missing being crowned world champions at USA 1999.
Again Gao was involved in a penalty shoot-out, arguably the most famous in the history of women’s football. But this time Gao was on the losing side as Brandi Chastain delivered the match and tournament-winning spot-kick.
"My memory of the entire shoot-out was noisy and vague," she said. "It was not a fond feeling. USA coach Tony DiCicco gave me a hug after the shoot-out and that was the only thing I could remember clearly about it.
"Looking back, I am a beneficiary of the FIFA Women's World Cup. It was because of the Women's World Cup that the women’s game has thrived across so many countries. In my country, women’s football has provided opportunities for many female players, myself included, to realise their dreams, showcase their talents and character through the game.
“Before playing football, I was a worker in a textile mill who played basketball for the local team. By playing football, I developed from an amateur to representing my country on the world stage. I am thankful to the game and I am proud of my status as a female footballer."