File image of Beiwen Zhang.(AFP)
File image of Beiwen Zhang.(AFP)

Premier Badminton League: Beiwen Zhang on tough training in China and hardships in USA

Beiwen Zhang, now 28, eventually found her calling in badminton, but hated the strictly disciplined Chinese sports regime that puts performance above everything else.
By Avishek Roy | Bengaluru
UPDATED ON JAN 13, 2019 01:04 PM IST

When she was a toddler, Beiwen Zhang was horrified by the sight of children being thrown into the pool on the first day of their swimming class. “Don’t do this to me,” Zhang told her parents when they suggested that she take up swimming.

Zhang, now 28, eventually found her calling in badminton, but hated the strictly disciplined Chinese sports regime that puts performance above everything else.

Her parents , who wanted Zhang to grow up as a discerning and independent sportsperson capable of making her own choices and not be at the mercy of the system, found her a home in Singapore. Little did they know that what they were trying to escape would be following them.

The Singapore national badminton coach turned out to be a Chinese national and Zhang still recalls those tough days of training.

“The pressure was so much. The training was so hard that you are scared of training. Those five-six years I couldn’t sleep the whole night,” said Zhang, who is playing for the Awadhe Warriors in the fourth edition of the Premier Badminton League.

When she couldn’t take it anymore, she set out to chart her own course.

“In China everyone can win a tournament and they don’t care who wins (as long as a Chinese is winning). It also depends on the player’s family and the relationship they have, and my family was not that rich. So my parents asked me if I would like to go to overseas. They trusted me.”

Life of a Pro

Zhang now stays in Las Vegas and represents the United States, trains in Singapore, has her own coach and travels the world with pride of a professional player.

“I am lucky because I have the freedom to choose,” says Beiwen.

In many ways, the rebellious Zhang held a mirror to the badminton world, which is still not completely professional.

Unlike for professional tennis players, life is difficult for shuttlers. It is the country’s badminton federation that still selects the national teams, sends entries to Open tournaments and are responsible for coaching the players.

In that sense, Zhang’s connection with the US at least helps her in getting to play in international tournaments. But her struggle lies in managing her finances without the help of a proper set-up.

“I take care of all expenses. I have to pay for my coach’s travel, my training, travel etc. In the US, I only get allowances for food,” she said.

A free bird

But despite the hardship — she didn’t meet her parents for three years after shifting base to the US as she had no money to travel — Zhang is content.

“In US I have my freedom. If I do not want to play any team events, they are OK with it and that’s also part of what I want,” she said.

“I play for myself so I can enjoy the match. I am not really stressful. I don’t like somebody giving me stress and pressure.”

Zhang today is the world No. 10, the 2018 India Open champion and 2018 Korea and US Open runner-up and is challenging the best in business.

“Association is important, they protect the players. Of course if a player doesn’t have to worry about everything, it’s good. But I have proved to other players that if you don’t have support, you still can play,” she said.

There have been several instances in the past where Chinese players have represented other nations.

“In China the next generation is almost at the same level as you, so the association gives a chance to the younger players if you don’t perform. We play for you for so many years and you just give up (on us) like that. It’s not fair.”

The domination of China in badminton is at its lowest ebb, but Beiwen insists it has nothing to with the lack of emerging talent.

“Five years ago, they (China) were winning everything and they didn’t really care who is going for tournaments. I don’t think Chinese are not good now, I think it’s because they are taking so much pressure.”

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