British Columbia·In Depth

Five months in a Spanish jail: The B.C. mother who gave her all — and $400K — for son's tennis career

Xiaoning Sui gave up a career and moved countries for her son. Then she met a man who said he could get him into UCLA.

Court documents detail life and sacrifice behind Xiaoning Sui's criminal bid to get son into UCLA

Court documents have revealed new details about the case of B.C. resident Xiaoning Sui, who was caught in the U.S. college admissions investigation. (Charles Krupa/The Associated Press)

They don't make Mother's Day cards gushy enough to reflect the kind of sacrifices Xiaoning Sui has made for her son.

Five months in "quasi-isolation" in a Spanish prison; handwashing his tennis teammates' underwear in a hotel room sink; spending $400,000 in an ultimately unsuccessful — and as it turned out criminal — bid to get him into a top notch American school.

The 49-year-old's final humiliation came this week as a judge in Boston sentenced her to time already served for attempting to bribe a soccer coach into securing a place for her son at the University of California, Los Angeles as a supposed top-tier soccer recruit.

"I set a horrible example for my child and I was a bad influence," Sui told the judge through an interpreter via teleconference from her home in Surrey, B.C., according to a report in the New York Post.

"I promise that I will never do that again."

No matter how cold or hot, 'she sat there to watch'

Although the case made headlines around the world this week, documents filed as part of the proceedings reveal new details about Sui, her path to Canada and the circumstances in which she found herself at the centre of the so-called Varsity Blues scandal.

Born in Shanghai, Sui — who is also known as Peggy — has been the principal caregiver for her son Eric since he was born in 2000.

No matter how hot or how cold, Xiaoning Sui's sister says, the Surrey, B.C., resident was there to watch her son play tennis and help him improve his game. (Shutterstock)

She has a degree in electronics and has worked as both a technician and an office manager, but left the workforce in 2007 to spend more time with her son — and to guide his athletic career.

"She brought up her son and was there every step of the way," Sui's sister Xiaomin Sui told the U.S. court in a letter.

"Every time her son was in training, or playing a game, no matter how cold or how hot the weather was, she sat there to watch, and helped him analyze after the game, in order to improve the game."

Washing son's teammates' underwear

According to a sentencing submission filed by Sui's lawyer, she and her son moved to Canada in 2015, seeking better educational opportunities for Eric.

She lives with her sister and niece in the Lower Mainland, while her husband continues to live and work in China.

Since Eric was five, Sui has thrown herself into his sport.

"She helped other parents who could not drive their kids by driving their kids to the tennis training and bringing them back," the document says.

William 'Rick' Singer leaves the federal courthouse after facing charges. Singer told Xiaoning Sui she would need to pay $400,000 to get her son into UCLA. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

When her son's team went to compete and the hotel did "not have washing machines, she helped young athletes wash their underwear and sportswear by hand."

In 2018, Sui began working with a Florida-based recruiter who "matched tennis players with college tennis coaches to facilitate the players' potential recruitment as part of the college admissions process."

And that's how Xiaoning "Peggy" Sui came to know William "Rick" Singer.

'A practitioner of that mysterious art'

Search Rick Singer's name on YouTube and you'll come across a series of black and white videos dedicated to overcoming the mysteries of the U.S. college admissions system: The Right Fit; Personal Best; Mastery.

According to American prosecutors, Singer founded his college counselling and preparation business — known as "The Key" — in California in 2007, getting approval as a charity in 2013.

In his promotional videos and a book — Getting In: Gaining Admission to Your College of Choice — Singer promises to help students and parents unveil the curtains on the admissions process.

Students walk on the University of California, Los Angeles campus in this file photo. Xioaning Sui agreed to pay $400,000 to get her son into UCLA. (Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press)

"I'm one of the people who decides who gets in and who doesn't. I am a practitioner of that mysterious art," he writes.

"And I'll tell you a secret. It's not an an art. It's a science."

What Singer's book and videos don't say is that his version of that academic alchemy cost parents millions.

He turned average students into golden applicants by paying ringers to write their exams and greasing the palms of sports coaches who secured coveted spots on university teams for his clients' children as fake athletic recruits.

She said 'OK'

Sui was told Singer could help her son get into UCLA — but it would cost $400,000.

She spoke through a Chinese translator with the tennis recruiter and Singer in a conference call in August 2018. She was told Singer had a "special way of writing" applications.

"Singer never disclosed that any portion of the $400,000 Ms. Sui agreed was intended to be a bribe," Sui's lawyer wrote in her sentencing documents.

Xiaoning Sui agreed to pay $100,000 to Jorge Salcedo, the former men's soccer head coach at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to get her son into the university. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

On the same call, she begged Singer and the recruiter to keep the payment a secret from her son.

In the months that followed, Singer worked to create a fake athletic profile for Eric and to arrange with UCLA soccer coach Jorge Salcedo to admit him as a purported soccer recruit.

They combined pictures of Sui's son playing tennis with those of another individual playing soccer to invent a "top player for two private soccer clubs in Canada." 

And Salcedo filled out a form claiming he saw Eric playing soccer in China and that he had "good quickness and speed."

In the court documents, Sui's lawyer claims his client wasn't part of efforts to fabricate an athletic resume for her son.

He claims it wasn't until October 2018 that the reality of the situation was explained in terms that left no room for doubt as to what was actually happening.

Sui was told to wire $100,000 directly to the UCLA soccer coach and told that although her son was a tennis player, he would be entering the school as a soccer prospect.

She said "OK." 

And investigators were listening, because by then Singer was cooperating with the FBI in an investigation that would see dozens of his clients — including Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, Full House's Lori Loughlin and Vancouver businessman and former CFL athlete David Sidoo — charged with conspiracy to commit fraud.

'A money crime'

The charges against Sui were filed in a sealed indictment on March 5, 2019, but Sui claims she had no knowledge of them until she was arrested in Spain while travelling the following September.

She waived extradition to the United States, but the process took five months. Sui spent the time in Madrid V Penitentiary.

Xiaoning Sui leaves federal court in Boston in February after pleading guilty to paying $400,000 to get her son into the University of California, Los Angeles, as a fake soccer recruit. (Associated Press/Elise Amendola)

Despite being held in an institution known as a "VIP prison" for the high-profile politicians who have been held there, Sui's lawyer claims his client's time behind bars was scarring.

"She was confined to her cell for approximately 15 hours per day. For approximately one month, she was in a cell alone," he wrote in the court documents.

"For a vast majority of the time there was no other Mandarin speaking inmate in the facility. With her family members thousands of miles away, Mrs. Sui spent 157 days in quasi isolation."

Sui was finally transferred to U.S. marshals and sent to the United States in February. She was released on $250,000 bail at that time and allowed to return to Canada.

Her sentencing was set for this week, but given restrictions imposed because of COVID-19, both the prosecution and the defence suggested the proceedings be held by video conference instead.

It was unlikely she would be able to travel to the U.S. anyway.

Sui had pleaded guilty in February, and her lawyer argued she had already served more time — and in much harsher conditions — than any of the other parents ensnared in Singer's dealings.

It wasn't a lesson she would need to learn twice.

"No rational person aware of what has occurred to Ms. Sui would ever knowingly and intentionally choose to endure what she has experienced over the last nine months," her lawyer wrote.

U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock agreed. But he also said there should be a fine.

"It's a money crime," he told Sui. "And it seems to me that it ought to be paid for in money too."

The penalty — $250,000.

But what is money, anyway — compared to the love for a son?


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.