Michelle Li has determination like very few others. Without coach, team, or financial support, she has fought her way to the pinnacle of a sport that is wildly popular in Asia, but quite obscure in her home country. Just before COVID-19 brought sports to a standstill, we asked Canada’s only world top-10 badminton player to describe her unique situation:
Badminton has never been a popular sport on this side of the world. Years ago, I went through Canadian customs and had an officer ask me what badminton was. Caught completely off guard, I stared at him for a good few seconds, speechless. I honestly didn’t know how to answer the question. It was shocking and a bit sad to realize that all my effort was invested in a sport that some people didn’t even know existed.
On the court, it’s just you and your opponent. But off the court, it’s your team versus their team. So, what happens when your team is just you? What do you do when you’re simply on your own?
In other countries, top-10 badminton athletes make millions. They are celebrities at home. They are trained and guided to titles by generations of world champions and specialists. But you are still self-funded. Still trying to make ends meet day after day. Your most prevalent thought is “I’m f--ked.”
In Asia, even junior badminton players have substantially more resources than our top athletes. We are up against athletes who enjoy world class training facilities, paid housing, daily nutritional attention, monthly salaries, medical and team support, and all competition expenses. With badminton’s popularity and exposure in Asia, sponsorships and donors commonly fuel player’s ambitions.
It’s a reality that is playing an integral part in driving my goals. Apart from my personal aspirations to medal at the Olympics, I have devoted my career to creating history for Canadian badminton and changing my sport for the better on this side of the world.
When I decided to go for the top, all I heard was, “Go back to school, you’re just wasting money and time, Don’t get your hopes up, There’s no way you can compete with them.”
I still remember the looks on people’s faces when I told them my goals. For generations, the best Canadians hovered 20-to-30th in world rankings. I set my sights on being top 20. When I reached the top 20? I set my goal at top 16. And when I reached the top 16? Top 10. Still, the looks of doubt continued. The laughter still came.
As an athlete with relentless drive, I have always felt inside that I could be just as good as the Asian players and Olympic champions… that I could be better. I wanted to be the exception, even when sometimes it seemed like I would be the rule. I fought the judgement and worked every day to do everything I could to level the playing field.
I am at my career high 8th in the world rankings now, and I know I have accomplished a lot, but beyond doubt; there is still so much farther that I can go.
Top, large image: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon