Michelle Li, badminton star, devoting focus to defending Pan Am gold
Markham, Ont., resident ready for pressure of hometown event
Some athletes celebrate a gold medal by cracking a nice bottle of champagne, while others go into full-on party mode.
Michelle Li was so overcome with emotion after winning badminton gold at the Pan Am Games four years ago, she made herself sick.
"I didn't realize how big it was until I won," Li said. "Just all the media attention after I won the gold medal, it was crazy. I got so nauseous after all the media attention and after the finals, I got so sick that night because I was just so overwhelmed at how big it was. I didn't really know — I thought it was just like a normal Pan Am tournament."
Li beat teammate Joycelyn Ko 21-13, 21-12 in an all-Canadian final in Guadalajara, Mexico, back in 2011. The victory came a day after Li won the doubles title with partner Alexandra Bruce.
"I came home and it was all over the newspaper and everyone was talking about it," Li said in a recent interview. "I was like, 'Whoa, the Pan Am Games are pretty big.' So this time I'm going into it and I'm focused and I'm ready and I know that it's going to be something that everyone is looking forward to. I'm going to be ready this time."
A year after her Pan Am double gold, Li was back in the spotlight at the Summer Games in London. It was a much different scenario as Li and Bruce became the first Canadian duo to make it to an Olympic bronze-medal match, although they took an interesting route to get there.
4 teams expelled
Four teams were expelled for dropping their matches on purpose in an attempt to get a more favourable draw. The Canadians, who had finished last in their pool, were thrust back into the tournament and came a win away from reaching the podium.
"Now if I go to a second Olympics, I definitely want to make it to a medal round based on my ability," she said. "I don't want to be known for being brought back in because of other people's disqualifications. It's part of the game but at the same time I'd like to get there with my own ability.
"So I think that played a big role in motivating me to want to come back and just give it my all and actually expect to [win a] medal this time."
The Rio Games are still over a year away. Li, a Hong Kong native who moved to Canada as a youngster, is currently devoting her focus to defending her titles at the Toronto Pan Am Games.
She'll get to do it in her hometown of Markham, Ont., which will host badminton matches at the Atos Markham Pan Am/Parapan Am Centre from July 11-16.
"I want to show my friends and family what I've been doing with my life," Li said with a laugh. "They just hear that I'm training all the time, but they don't see me compete. So they don't really know what I'm training for and where I am in terms of my level right now."
Li, who won another national title this year, is also the reigning Commonwealth Games champion. The world No. 15 has battled a few nagging injuries of late but didn't seem hampered at a recent training session.
The shuttlecock looked like a blur at times as Li and her training partners smashed it over the net with incredible pace.
Li seems to float on the court with remarkable fluidity. She'll often fully extend her five-foot-eight frame with a thumping lunge before springing back into position quickly after completing her return.
It can be a tough sport on the body.
Li is just 23, but the jumping, smashing, squatting and positional changes that accompany each rally have taken a toll on her joints.
"Even when I was 17 or 18, I was walking like a 30-year-old," Li said. "I wake up and I need 10 minutes to warm up before I can walk normally."
Minor injuries aside, Li will still be a favourite this summer as the world's top-ranked players are mostly from Asia and Europe and don't compete at the Pan Ams. She's comfortable with others gunning for her.
"For me, I don't want to live with any regret," said Li. "If I've trained hard, I did everything that I could and I put it all out there, then it's good for me.
"But obviously I'm definitely fighting for the gold medal."