Both the highlight and low of Rachel Wong’s season, came when she qualified for the National Badminton Tournament. It was an amazing feeling, qualifying to represent Ontario at a nation-wide level, but it was a bittersweet feeling as well. “I was really sad. Because I knew that they were so close, and I was really nervous going to Nationals alone.”
Wong was born in Vancouver, British Colombia. When she was 9, her family moved to Hong Kong, China, following a job offer her father received. She moved back to Canada for university last year. Now in her second year of studies at UTM, Wong majors in CCIT, with a double minor in Political Science and Environmental Management. She has a lot of interests, but is particularly interested in environmental policy. For Wong, it’s the perfect combination. It allows her to explore her varied interests, with a focus on current issues. “I chose CCIT because I really like art in design, but the program itself is also pretty broad so I can explore a lot of interests. It’s also very relevant in today’s media-saturated world. I chose my minors because I like how scientists can show their findings and present it in a way that affects policy change, conversation, preservation, and species.”
Wong balances her time between her studies, working at the UTM Career Center, being an Executive for the DEM Association on campus, being a member of the d-league women’s volleyball team, and the varsity badminton team.
It was an interesting transition, moving from Vancouver to Hong Kong to Mississauga. Wong went from the calm suburban Richmond area of Vancouver, to the busy and fast-paced city of Hong Kong. “I think the Vancouver flag is a pretty good representation of what the city is like. It’s setting or rising of the sun, and there are waves. I think it’s a pretty good representation of what the province is like. A lot of landscapes, scenery and nature. A less extreme version of Toronto.”
It was a pretty big culture shock moving to Hong Kong.” It’s so fast paced. People just mind their own business. You don’t get people opening doors for you. You just have to get used to that, and you start living that busy fast-paced lifestyle yourself. I felt the need to be constantly busy, to fill out my schedule. I think it’s shaped me into the person I am today. Even now, I fill up my schedule. But I think it helps keep me focused, and opened up a lot of new opportunities for me,” Wong explains.
In Hong Kong, Wong was challenged academically and personally. There are two types of schools in Hong Kong—local and international. Wong attended an international school, a private school that followed the IB program and the OSSD program. In Hong Kong, the education system is very competitive. “In Asia, the societal pressure for education is really high. It made me grow a lot as a person, I think it pushed me more than I would’ve been if I’d stayed in Vancouver.” Rachel feels the academic competitiveness and focus not only challenged her, but really prepared her for her studies in university. “It felt like what university feels like now. The workload and tight deadlines. It was nice not having to adjust too much coming to university. I really liked the education program because it encourages you to think critically, not to just memorize. We had a film program, which was pretty cool. Everyone after graduation applied to Ivy league schools, UofT was a popular choice.”
Wong describes adapting to her new school a lot like being the new kid at school. Her school went from pre-school to the end of high-school. And she’d arrived at the school when everyone had already established their friend groups.
Wong was only 9 when she was thrown into a new country, and culture. But she can’t help but see all the positive that came with the experiences. “I think it helped being young, because you’re a lot more flexible. I don’t remember much of the difficult part, but as I look back on it, it wasn’t a negative experience. I think it helped having my sister there, because we were going through the same thing.”
The move also gave Wong an opportunity to connect more with her family and culture. Despite coming from an area of Vancouver where there were a lot of other Chinese people, she never felt the kind of cultural connection like she did when she moved to China. “In Hong Kong it was nice getting to know my family there, and in touch with the Chinese side. I never used to have big parties like during Chinese New Year, but I got a chance to learn how great that was.”
Like here at UTM, Wong was heavily involved in sports at school. One of the benefits of international schools are the opportunities it provides to the students. Being active in sports at her school awarded Wong the opportunity to travel overseas to Thailand and Singapore for competitions. And Wong didn’t just participate in badminton and volleyball, she tried other sports like soccer, basketball and cross-country, which she particularly liked.
Sport culture is a little different here in Canada than it is in China. “It feels like there’s definitely a community there for badminton and volleyball in Vancouver. In Hong Kong, badminton and volleyball, especially badminton, are huge sports.” Wong noticed the biggest differences in volleyball. “It’s a different playing style. Asians, we’re generally shorter, so it’s a different style. The way we play, and the tactics we use are definitely different, like speed. Here it’s more focused on power, strength and offensive.”
In China, badminton is like a cultural sport, similarly how hockey is for Canada. “Badminton is more competitive in Hong Kong. There are a lot more people, it’s more evident. A lot of people have private coaches. There are kids as young as two. Their parents really want them to be competitive, so they start them young.”
Growing up, badminton was a sport her family engaged in just for fun. Volleyball was the legacy sport. Rachel’s mom played competitive volleyball growing up. Captain of her local school team that made a name for themselves in volleyball.
Wong didn’t begin playing badminton for fun until grade 6. And didn’t start playing it competitively until high school. She competed through her school athletics program, while here in Canada most young athletes have to go outside of school to find a competitive club or program.
School teams in Hong Kong have regulated practices and coaches. UTM has two two-hour practices per week. In Hong Kong, she had school practices, which weren’t too vigorous, and private coaching which felt necessary to attain the level she wanted to reach. “That was how I built up my foundation for badminton. I wanted to get better. I knew we were going to be competing at school, and I also knew school training wasn’t going to be enough. I haven’t had the private training here. The coaching staff here is definitely higher level than our school training in Hong Kong.”
Wong moved to Mississauga for university. “I was pretty young when we moved, but coming back to Canada has reminded me about the culture here. People are really nice, good manners, and friendly.” In her first year of university, Wong didn’t try out for the badminton team. She didn’t think she would be good enough to compete at a university varsity level. She tried out for the d-league volleyball team, because she knew it wasn’t going to be that competitive. During a drop-in session for badminton, she was approached by one of the assistant coaches who invited her to a tryout during one of the varsity team practices. By the second semester, Wong was on the roster and amidst the competition. “I got thrown into it. They were already halfway into their season. Regionals was like in a month.” Wong handled her introduction incredibly well, better than she thought she would. After only playing for half a year, Wong won bronze at last year’s OCAA Regionals, OCAA All-Academic Award, and UTM’s Rookie of the Year.
This year, Wong became the first badminton athlete from UTM to go to Nationals and represent Team Ontario. It was an interesting experience, not only for competing on a national stage, but with teammates who were previously opponents. “It was weird at first. They were previously your opponents, and now they’re your teammates. We were a team now, and we got to bond. It was great to be part of a collective, to be representing something as big as Ontario. I was also really nervous, I didn’t know anyone. Our team (Ontario), we were previously competitors. I was worried we weren’t going to gel as a team. After the first day it was okay, it was natural that you came together and made these connections.”
But Wong faced the challenge with poise and maturity. “When everyone is that high of a level, you feel like you have to live up to that. I knew obviously I wasn’t the best athlete there. That’s humbling but at the same time I felt like I had to prove like I was good enough to be there. Especially internally, and I think that’s what drove a lot of the pressure. Personal expectations as well, because I also hold myself to a pretty hard standard. I want to do well in a lot of things, and I’ll push myself to get there.”
Most of the time, when you see a picture of Wong, she has a smile on her face. Despite a calm and collected front, she admits that she does a lot of over thinking. “I feel like I spent a lot of time overthinking things. Like what people were going to think of me. I learned that playing more free would be a lot more beneficial for me. I definitely think I could’ve played a lot better at nationals. I have to see this as a learning experience, take less pressure off myself and accept the fact that nothing will come out of you being negative.”
In terms of inspiration, and someone she looks up to, Wong looks outside her sports of volleyball and badminton to figure skating. Wong looks up to Yuzuru Hanyou, a men’s figure skater from Japan. She looks up to him not just a s person but as an athlete. “He’s gone through so much. He’s had family that’s been through the tsunami and the earthquake and he’s dealt with injuries. He’s performed, even while not being in top form, and still became an Olympic champion.”
But Rachel is both successful and inspiring in her own right. In only her second year at UTM, she was named this year’s OCAA Women’s Badminton Player of the Year, an All-Canadian, and an OCAA All-Star. And she won the silver medal in the Women’s Single Provincial Tournament, hosted here at UTM, that sent her to Nationals.
Wong’s favourite thing about playing for UTM is the opportunity to be a part of something that’s still growing, the athletic community that’s begun to feel like a family. “I love it. Everyone is so supportive! Initially, I felt like all the teams were pretty separate. There’s a lot of planning with meeting up with friends who are also busy students, so I can understand why we wouldn’t connect with other teams much. But seeing other people from other teams, coming up to you to congratulate you means a lot. That kind of support means a lot to us athletes, even if it doesn’t feel like it means a lot to that person. I remember all those interactions […] It reminds me that we’re a community even if we play different sports. We all love sports, we’re competitive, and we all want to do our best.”
Wong credits personal reflection as being the key to her success, taking the time to think about yourself and what you want. “What is it I’m taking from this experience? Why am I doing it? Am I doing it for the sake of it? Or am I truly enjoying it? You have to find things that bring you joy and purpose. I think taking a moment to reflect on who you are as a person. Who you want to be, and where you want to be is really important. And sometimes that means accepting that you can’t do it all.”
Wong is already set to leave behind a decorated career here at UTM, already in such a short time, but she doesn’t want it to end there. She hopes her legacy at UTM will be much larger and broader. Wong wants people to look up to her, but not just because she’s an accomplished athlete. “I work hard in school, get involved. And I don’t fall into single category. I want to be known as just an athlete. You can be a balanced person. You don’t have to be just an athlete. Chances are you’ll probably be good at just one thing. But for me there are a lot of things that make me who I am, and it’s not just sports. I think balanced person and going for your interests in really important.”