America’s Best Female Badminton Player Struggles With Money to Survive, But Refuses to Give Up
It’s February 4th, 2018 in New Delhi, India where the BWF India Open is underway. Top players around the world including Denmark, China, Indonesia and Malaysia are competing for a piece of the $350,000 prize pocket.
The women’s singles final features P. V. Sindhu, a rising Indian star with home court advantage, two professional coaches advising her, and a roaring crowd cheering for her victory.
Across from her is Beiwen Zhang, a player originally from China who now represents the United States. Coming from a first world country, one could assume she has similar resources at her disposal, but this is not the case.
The reality is that Zhang is literally by herself. She has no coaches to advise her between rallies, nor even a handler who can help her with minor necessities. Sindhu has the whole stadium behind her while Zhang can’t find a supporter in sight.
Looking at these factors, any odds of winning are virtually against Zhang. So you could imagine her joy when she pulled off a major upset, defeating the Olympic silver medalist in a nail-biter match 21-18, 11-21, 22-20 in front of a stunned crowd. This would be her first BWF World Tour title and probably a first glimpse that her hard work and sacrifices are paying off.
But even saying “hard work” and “sacrifices” is an understatement. The fact is that Zhang’s life has been filled with a laundry list of setbacks she seemingly conquers time and time again.
Born in Liaoning, China, Zhang was 8 years old when she picked up the sport that changed her life.
“My dad brought me to a sports school and they let me choose a sport I liked, I chose badminton,” she told Shuttlers.
Back then, she played mostly for fun, but her coach at the time saw that she had talent and suggest she join a local team. Her big break came when Singapore held a trials tournament in China to select players to join their team. Zhang, who was just 13 at the time, were one of the few members selected.
Seeing a rare opportunity, Zhang accepted the offer, packed her things, and moved to Singapore by herself. Aside from dealing with the challenges of being in a foreign country alone, Zhang was constantly bullied by her teammates.
“When I just moved to Singapore, most of the players didn’t like me so they bullied me.” she recalled. “They threw my camera into the water, they tried to destroyed my stuff, and when I went to a table to eat, everyone would move to another table.”
While such an environment is not ideal for anyone, this experience were the beginnings of Zhang’s lessons on mental toughness.
“When I was 13, I was always alone, so I think that’s when I started training my mental toughness.” she said.
In 2004, Zhang joined the Singapore National Team and won a bronze medal at the 2009 Southeast Asian Games. However, she was dropped by the Singapore Badminton Association in 2011 after a falling out with then-singles coach Luan Ching.
Coming to America
Zhang decided to take a break from competition to travel. She visited the U.S. in 2012, where a friend suggested she play some local tournaments to make some money on the side. She fell in love with the country and moved to Las Vegas that same year.
Back then, she made many friends and found a local team to train with in Las Vegas, however, one friend cautioned her.
“He told me, ‘now you have this level is normal, but after 2 year, you’ll be the same as all of us”‘ she said.
“I was like ‘What the hell? no, you never know. You can’t just say that.’ I had to show everyone in the U.S. that not everyone is the same” she added
After a one year break from competing in international tournaments, she returned in 2013, winning four international challenge tournaments including the Yonex USA International, The Yonex Welsh International, and the Carlton Irish Open International.
In 2014, now playing for the United States, she continued with a string of Grand Prix titles including the U.S Open Grand Prix, the Brazil Open Grand Prix and the Dutch Open Grand Prix, all in the same year.
After two years of great results, Singapore asked Zhang to come back to represent them again with an enticing offer on the table. This was a deal of a lifetime and would give her great odds to fulfill her dreams of competing in the Olympics. While the answer may seem like a no brainer, Zhang was hesitant.
“As I thought longer about my future, I thought ‘what am I going to do after the Olympics?'” she said. “I wanted to challenge myself.”
Just like that, Zhang not only declined an opportunity to represent a country where badminton is huge, but also the resources and capital which could help her reach her athletic goals.
“I decided to stay and represent the U.S. because it’a challenge.” she said “I want to market the sport better in this country.”
Doing the Impossible
For the last three years, Zhang has been struggling on all fronts. The United States has no national team, leaving her nowhere to train. Even worse, the Las Vegas team she was part of disbanded towards the end of 2014 as members wanted to focus more on their careers and families.
“That was the hardest times for me because I was alone and didn’t have money to go to Asia or Europe to train,” she said.
Despite these setbacks, Zhang went to the gym regularly to stay in shape and asked friends for help to run drills when they were available.
Just when all hope seemed lost, it was Yonex who offered a sponsorship that helped turn things around for Zhang.
“I really have to thank Yonex.” she said. “When I had nothing, they sponsored me and helped me a lot.”
Through the help of USA Badminton, Zhang was connected to USOC who gave her a small allowance to help with her expenses as well. But, even all this was not enough to put her in a comfortable place. To this day, she needs to carefully calculate her expenses to figure out which tournaments she could afford to travel to. Aside from hoping she makes enough in tournament winnings, she makes extra cash by playing badminton leagues in Denmark.
“Sometimes I feel so tired, first I have to think about my expenses to see if I have enough for the year.” she said “Now I have a coach who I have to pay as well. “
When Zhang is at tournaments, she needs to find players from other countries willing to drill and warm her up before games. Oftentimes, the meager 2 minute she gets before her match is the only warmup time she gets that day.
“It’s really funny, because towards the end of the tournament, there’s no one left to help me because everyone’s gone.” she said with a laugh.
At the time of this writing, Zhang currently sits at #10 in the BWF world rankings for women’s singles. Her situation pales in comparison to India’s P.V. Sindhu, who’s currently#3 in the world, reportedly makes $165,000 a week from endorsements, making her the world’s 7th highest paid female athlete. Such opportunities have yet to be made available to badminton athletes in the US.
Shuttlers attempted to reach out to USA Badminton for comment on the types of programs and funding available to their high performing athletes, but they have yet to respond.
Despite the lack of resources, capital, and support from the United States, Zhang remains confident and mentally tough.
“I have no choice, I have to be mentally strong, stronger than other player.” she said. “When I see other players with coaches to help them and I’m alone — you have to be mentally strong when the situation is against you.”
“I can’t compare myself to other players, because they have everything.” she added.
Zhang hopes that her mental toughness could help inspire junior players coming up in the US.
“I feel like the juniors here give up so easily.” she said. “If you’re used to giving up during training, of course you will give up during competition – because you are used to it.”
“I remember my first coach told me if the shuttle is not touching the floor, then try to get it!” she said. “Most days during training, I’m like a dog on the court, trying to catch everything I can.”
“First time, you cannot get it, maybe second time, but third time you will get it for sure – you never know what is your limit if you don’t try.” she added.
The Road to Tokyo 2020 and Beyond.
Beiwen Zhang currently has her eyes set on competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. She is working with USOC to hopefully secure her citizenship in time to represent the US and give the country its first badminton Olympic medal. Until then, she will continue training whenever she can to keep up with all the top players in the world.
“I love this country, everyone is friendly, people are great. I have so much freedom here in the U.S.” she said. “I don’t look at the Olympic gold medal, because I feel like it’s too far, but I think I have a good chance to medal.”
Regardless of what Beiwen Zhang thinks of her abilities, it’s undeniable that she never fails to surprise us.
Zhang’s GoFundMe is still available to receive donations. Click here to support her.
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