The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 run July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, with the Paralympic Games following Aug. 25-Sept. 6, and while they may be months away there’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Each Tuesday leading up to the Games, TeamUSA.org will present a nugget you should read about – from athletes to watch to storylines to follow to Japanese culture and landmarks – as part of “Tokyo 2020 Tuesday.” Follow along on social media with the hashtag #Tokyo2020Tuesday.
Beiwen Zhang felt sick, as she often does. It was apparent from the sound of her voice that she was again feeling under the weather, but she still had to laugh at herself.
“You can hear me right now. I’m still sick,” Zhang said, laughing out loud over the phone. “But it’s getting better.”
Zhang can thank her weak immune system for giving her a reason to start playing badminton as a kid. She’s now the United States’ best hope of winning its first Olympic medal in badminton, and it’s all because she got sick so frequently while growing up in China.
“When I was young, my immune system was not good,” Zhang, now 29, said. “So my parents wanted me to do some sports to get my body stronger.”
Zhang coughed a lot, got fevers and regularly had to go to a hospital to be treated. Tired of seeing their daughter feel ill, Zhang’s parents took her to a sports academy to find a sport she enjoyed playing. They hoped it would make her feel better.
Zhang tried swimming, but when she didn’t enjoy it she began playing badminton at age 8. Over the years, as Zhang’s fevers have come and gone, her status as a world-class badminton player with a strong right hand has improved.
Zhang is now the top American women’s singles player and ranked No. 13 in the world. If she maintains such an impressive ranking, she will be assured of qualifying for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, which would mark her first Games.
Now living in Las Vegas, Zhang has represented the U.S. since 2013 after previously competing for China and Singapore. She was born in China and moved to Singapore when she was 13.
Zhang is ranked No. 11 on the BWF World Tour after reaching the medal podium for the second time this season with her semifinal finish at the Hong Kong Open in mid-November. She finished last season with three tour medals, including gold for her win at the India Open.
Beiwen Zhang competes against He Bing Jiao (China) at the Bli Bli Indonesia Open on July 18, 2019 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
“I’ll be honest, I’m not really good like a top-five player,” Zhang said, being brutally honest while assessing her Olympic chances. “So of course, it also depends on the draw. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a good draw. I’m looking for a medal, not like gold medals.”
Zhang earned the silver medal at the 2018 U.S. Open, marking the first American singles player to medal at the event since she won the U.S. Open in 2014. She said her success on the world tour stems from her mental approach to badminton and her ability to not get complacent or too emotional after a win.
She said she always has room to improve regardless of her performance on the court.
“When you win some tournaments and when you get good results, people are going to enjoy the success. But they don’t really think about what is going to be next,” Zhang said. “You’re going to lose the next week, too. So other players, they don’t really think about it. They’re always thinking, ‘I’m really good.’”
Unlike top players from countries where badminton is widely popular, Zhang doesn’t have a national training facility where she regularly goes to practice. She has to fly to different cities to train, and she moved to Las Vegas after friends told her about a place there where she could practice.
The lack of badminton’s widespread popularity in the U.S. would make an Olympic medal mean even more to Zhang.
“At first, when I learned about the U.S., it was (about) San Francisco,” Zhang said. “And I heard about Las Vegas, that there’s a team (there), so I contacted my friends in Las Vegas. I asked the owner if I could go and train in Las Vegas, and he said, ‘Sure. Just come.’”
Zhang made headlines last year when she started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $5,500 to cover her travel expenses to the 2018 world championships after she qualified for the major tournament. She ended up surpassing her fundraising goal in less than a week.
In addition to not having a regular training site, Zhang doesn’t have a coach who attends her matches and assesses her game. She has to determine on her own her strengths and those areas of her game that need improvement.
“If you have a coach, the coach will just sit behind you,” Zhang said. “When people are sitting outside (the court), it’s much clearer than when you’re on the court.”
Zhang said people have offered to coach her over the years, asking her, “Oh, you need a coach?” However, she has turned down their offers and instead trusts her own judgment.
“I love this sport and I know my limits, so I know what to do,” Zhang said. “I know how to plan it.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.