COLUMBIA — Just three years ago Yi Zhang-Li was more than 7,000 miles from Columbia. Thirty-six months, two schools and two languages later it’s staggering how much her life has changed.
Zhang-Li, now a junior outside hitter for the Columbia College volleyball team, was born and raised in Suzhou, China. Zhang-Li’s journey and transition to life in the United States was not always an easy one, but it’s one she is glad she made.
Zhang-Li began playing volleyball when she was in elementary school. In 1998 she shifted her concentration to beach volleyball and at the age of 13 enrolled in the Nan Jing Sports School. At Nan Jing, Zhang-Li would practice volleyball every Tuesday and Thursday for the entire day.
In December 2000 she joined the Chinese National Beach Volleyball Team, and for the next four years her focus was solely on volleyball.
“In China we only focused on practice,” said Zhang-Li.
“Once I was on the National Team I never studied, never. We practiced like three times a day and almost six days a week. You don’t worry about school at all.”
While Zhang-Li was playing for the National Team two of her coaches were Deng Yang and Chen Feng, who later became assistant coaches for the MU volleyball team. In 2004 Zhang-Li committed to play volleyball for MU and moved to Columbia.
During her first year in the United States, her focus was on learning English and getting a high enough score on the ACT to qualify academically. Living in a new country for the first time was a frightening experience for Zhang-Li, but despite the stress she was under she refused to allow herself to become discouraged.
“The first year I was very homesick,” Zhang-Li said. “Studying English is so hard and I had a lot of pressure, because I had to pass the ACT in order to get into the school. So I had no backup.”.
“I think the most important thing is you have to dedicate yourself. You have to have faith on certain things. If you believe you can do it then you can do it. For me, I would just always tell myself that if I try my best I will be the best.”
Zhang-Li’s career at MU did not last long, however. Once she received the score she needed to qualify she was redshirted her freshman year. After that year, she decided to transfer to Columbia College before she ever played a game for the Tigers. Zhang-Li said a combination of opportunity and her admiration of Columbia College coach Melinda Wrye-Washington led to her decision.
“At MU I didn’t get much time to play and there was no chance for me to show them how good I am,” Zhang-Li said.
“And Melinda’s a great coach. I learned a lot from her by watching her. We play the same position so she knows what I have to work on and what I have to improve on to make me better.”
When Coach Wyre-Washington received the call telling her that Zhang-Li was hoping to become a Cougar, she was more than willing to accommodate her.
“I got a call from the coaches over there, they actually helped her transfer,” Wyre-Washington said. “I don’t really know what happened over that summer, but she’s a very good student and had a lot of potential as a player and we were glad to get her.”
Wyre-Washington said in the time she has been around her, Zhang-Li has matured. When Zhang-Li first joined the Cougars, Wyre-Washington saw a player who was often timid and lacked aggressiveness on the volleyball court. But during the past year, Zhang-Li’s confidence has become apparent.
“This year she’s had more confidence in herself,” Wyre-Washington said. “I keep working with her on confidence and aggressiveness and she’s getting better. She is becoming an aggressive hitter.”
That newfound aggressiveness was on full display Tuesday night. With her team reeling in the third game of a match with Missouri Baptist, Zhang-Li sealed the victory for the Cougars by leaping and slamming the final two points in between several Missouri Baptist defenders.
Three years after leaving her home and family behind, Zhang-Li is happy about where she is. She was married over the summer, and after she graduates she plans to move in with her husband in to California, where he works as a sales representative. Although she has been through many ups and downs since leaving China, moving to the U.S. is a decision she is thankful she made.
“I am happy the way I am right now,” Zhang-Li said. “My parents are very proud of me. I just believe in myself and then try my best, and I think I will be the best. Just never give up. That is not an option.”