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Chinese-American returns as an athlete

US’s Sugui Kriss’s team mate Lora Webster, blocks a ball during a sitting volleyball match against China at the Paralympic games in Beijing , China, Tuesday, Sept.9, 2008. (AP Photo/ Elizabeth Dalziel)

BEIJING (AP) - SuGui Kriss always wanted to return to China to rediscover her roots and, perhaps, to leave her mark on the country.

She’s done both.

She marched into the National Stadium - the Bird’s Nest - last weekend for the opening ceremony of Beijing’s Paralympic Games, representing the United States as a member of its women’s sitting volleyball team.

How different this was from her early life in southern China; an abandoned infant who was raised in an orphanage in Kunming until she was adopted 13 years ago by the American couple Charles and Marilyn Kriss.

"SuGui goes from a forsaken situation to marching into the Bird’s Nest in front of 90,000 fans," explained Charles, her adopted father. "It’s a great testimony."

If Paralympic organizers are looking for a poster girl among the 4,000 athletes in these games, the 21-year-old SuGui Kriss would be a great choice. She’s attractive, she’s overcome her share of problems - and she has a powerful serve.

If you believe her coach, her parents and SuGui herself, the Paralympics have taken a slightly shy girl and given her confidence, a more outgoing personality and a chance to return home to Albany, New York, with a Paralympic medal.

The U.S. women finished 2-1 in pool play and will face the Netherlands on Friday in the semifinals. The Americans won the bronze medal four years ago in Athens, and a victory against the Dutch would put them into the gold-medal game - probably against China.

The Americans’ only loss here was to China, the defending Paralympic champions.

In Wednesday’s 25-12, 25-17, 25-11 win over Latvia, SuGui picked up four points serving, her first of the tournament.

"I was excited to play, I was ready to play. I was all pumped up," said SuGui, a substitute backline player. "When you know you are going to play, you can’t wait to do it."

Added Denise Van De Walle, assistant coach of the U.S. team: "I feel like she’s come out of her shell. Early on we weren’t sure if she was going to cut it because she was new to the game and a little bit shy."

Kriss is one of thousands of Chinese orphans - mostly girls - adopted by foreign parents during the 1990s. The Chinese government has tightened the rules recently, making foreign adoptions more difficult and more time consuming.

Named Yang SuGui on her Chinese papers, she came into the life on the Kriss family in 1994 when their friends went to an orphanage in Kunming to complete an adoption. They returned home with photos of SuGui, which they passed on to Charles and Marilyn Kriss.

"They came back and called us, and it went from there," Marilyn Kriss explained. "We really felt like she is supposed to be in our family."

Marilyn Kriss made the trip to Kunming in August 1995 to pick up their new child - one of six, three adopted and three biological children, for the couple.

"She was a little girl who was very shy, very scared," Marilyn Kriss recalled of their first meeting. "She was very frightened. She came into the room and she was afraid to look at me."

Charles Kriss recalls a slightly different child, bounding off an airplane 10 feet ahead of her new mother as they arrived in the United States.

"She (SuGui) was coming to America to start a new life, and she was going to do it," her father recalled. "She has a lot of inner strength, a lot of determination."

SuGui was born with shortened fingers on both hands, and a right foot that’s not fully formed - probably due to a condition known as Amniotic Band Syndrome. She said her recollections of the orphanage are faint.

To clear that up, she returned alone there two years ago and worked for seven weeks caring for infants and older children, many of whom were disabled. She found a cleaner facility, but fewer children. She also contacted a Chinese family who had helped care for her when she was in the orphanage.

"For me, my memory was that it wasn’t a very pleasant place," she said of her early childhood there. "Kids stayed inside and didn’t go out a lot. That’s what I remember."

She said she has little interest in finding her biological family - at least for now, knowing it would be a long shot. She spoke Chinese as a child, but she’s lost most of the language since then, limiting herself to "ni hao" (hello) like most foreigners.

"I can see how fortunate I was to have been adopted and what a better life I have right now," she said. "If I was actually still in China, I don’t think I would have survived at all."

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