Four years ago, this story may not have been possible.
That’s because Michelle Li was a different person then, and certainly wasn’t the mini-celebrity she is today.
When Li and her doubles partner Alex Bruce made it to the badminton semifinals at the 2012 Summer Games in London, they instantly gained fame as Bruce-Li, the only two badminton players the average Canadian could name.
“She’s changed a lot,” says Jennifer Lee, the owner and head coach at Lee’s Badminton Centre in Richmond Hill, Ont., where Li trains.
“Before, her attitude was really bad. Most of the kids that are Canadian-born or raised here have a lot of confidence and haven’t really seen the world.
“Because I brought her around to see the world, her character started changing. Once she saw that there were tons of people better than her, she started changing. If this was four years ago, I don’t think she would have talked to you.”
The 21-year-old Li is all smiles as she engages in a lively doubles practice session. It’s eerie how much laughter and mirth is emanating from this friendly match.
Afterwards, she is happy to answer questions, even the obvious one.
“We noticed [Bruce-Li] right away, but it wasn’t really a big deal,” says Li, who is currently studying kinesiology at the University of Toronto and wants to get into medical school. “I heard she played with someone else that was also ‘Li’. She played with Carrie Li, so they were already Bruce-Li.”
A rare breed
Michelle Li is a rare breed: an elite Canadian badminton player.
Government funding is inadequate and more often than not, coaches and players alike pay for their own trips to competitions. That includes airfare, accommodations, food, and other costs.
“The government has criteria for funding and Michelle fits that criteria, but it’s not a lot, it’s like $1,500 a month,” says Lee. “Buying one ticket to Hong Kong is already $1,500. We’re planning on going to the Hong Kong and Macau Open in November – $1,500, gone.
“One birdie is $2.50. You know how many birdies they use every practice? At least a tube. That’s already like $15. If you train five days, that’s a lot of money. And where do you get the money from? I travel with her and I’ve spent $90,000 over the past three years to travel with them.”
Lee has a very close relationship with her young pupil. She understands the financial burdens that Li faces and doesn’t charge her for coaching.
It isn’t about the money for Lee, but more than that, the coach recognizes that top badminton players like Li and Bruce are extremely rare in Canada.
“If you’re not good at school or not good enough in badminton, how are you going to have a good future,” says Lee. “You have to be good at both. How many Michelle Lis are there in this country?
“You must be very disciplined, that’s why there’s no other Michelles. Alex Bruce is the same thing, she’s a structural engineer.”