By Lee Ann Waterman
Photography by Jim Craigmyle

Spring 2015 - When Michelle Li steps onto the badminton court at Markham’s Pan Am Centre this July, she’ll be competing for Canada in front of her hometown crowd and with the hopes of advancing the profile of her sport.

Born in Hong Kong, Ms Li, 23, grew up in Markham. It was during a visit to her birthplace at age 11 that she was introduced to badminton by an aunt. Back home in Markham, she and her mom began playing weekly in a recreational program at a local church.

An active kid with good hand-eye co-ordination, Ms Li showed a natural talent for the game. Soon she began lessons at Lee’s Badminton Training Centre in Markham, where she still trains with coach Jennifer Lee.

At 17 and competing in her first world-class tournament in Switzerland, Ms Li decided she could play with the best.

“Watching all the professional players, the top players of the world, compete, I decided I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be at the top,” she says. “And that’s when I realized I knew that I could do it.”

In the five years since, Ms Li has recorded some big wins. In 2011, she took gold in singles and doubles (with Toronto’s Alexandra Bruce) at the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. The pair finished in fourth place at the Summer Games in London in 2012, the best Canadian finish in badminton at the Olympics.

Last year, Ms Li won the Canada Open Grand Prix, making her the first home player to win this title. She also took the gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, becoming the first Canadian woman to win a singles gold in Commonwealth badminton.

But these wins haven’t come without sacrifice. Ms Li spent two years studying at the University of Toronto (2010-2011 in life sciences and 2012-2013 in kinesiology), but she put her education on hold to focus on her game.

Training, she says, requires discipline and consistency.

“I wake up, have breakfast, train for three hours, have lunch, nap, do a second session, another three hours, go home, make dinner, rest and go to sleep. And then do the same thing again tomorrow,” she says. “Sometimes I take Sunday off.

“A big part of the game is mental,” she adds. “Even sometimes when I’m off the court, I have to think about badminton and how I can improve myself.”

That’s part of what appeals to Ms Li about the sport: It’s a game that demands both physical and mental skill. It takes power, stamina, technique, speed and strategy.

“There are so many aspects and if you want to win, you’ve got to be good at a lot of things. You have to work very hard to be good.”
As the returning champion, Ms Li is a heavy favourite in the Pan Am Games.

But this contest will be about more than a medal to the athlete; it will be an opportunity to compete in front of local supporters and fans and inspire young athletes.

“I want to enjoy playing my sport in front of my friends and family because they don’t get a chance to see me play at this level very often,” she says. “It’s nice to show them what I’ve been training for.”

Although many Canadians might consider badminton “a backyard sport,” it is hugely popular and highly competitive in many other parts of the world, she says. This event and Ms Li’s performance have the potential to change perceptions.

“I realize that compared to Asian countries, badminton is underrated in Canada and I think that’s because it’s been a while since Canada had any results in badminton,” Ms Li says. “I feel if we can start bringing home medals, this will increase the profile of the sport and motivate more juniors and young kids to play badminton.”

Many Canadian players, she says, stop competing after they outgrow the junior circuit (under age 20) and start post-secondary school.

“One of my goals is to work hard and get results. I also want to be a good role model and give young aspiring players hope that they can do it.”

With her immediate sights set on a gold-medal-winning performance at home this summer, Ms Li is also looking to next year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“A goal would be to win Olympics in 2016,” she says. “With my results and progress lately, I feel like I’m getting a lot closer. I feel like I can do it.”

Competition beyond that will depend on whether she feels she has reached her peak or not. But eventually, she will again focus on her education, which she expects will culminate in medical school.

Badminton, which she says is a social activity as well as good exercise, will always be a part of her life.

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