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Why Badminton’s Beiwen Zhang Left The Last Olympics With Unfinished Business

by Lisa Costantini

Beiwen Zhang poses during the 2024 Team USA Media Summit on April 16, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Getty Images)

Beiwen Zhang is not used to failing. But the badminton athlete has tried to retire from the sport twice and has yet to be successful at it.

Born in China, where the sport is extremely popular, she first learned to play badminton. At eight, her parents encouraged her to take up a sport. After first giving swimming a try, she picked up the racquet and swung into badminton.

“My dad sent me to learn how to swim, but I don’t like water — at all,” Zhang explained. “To teach me, they would just throw me in the water. I was crying every single day for a month.”

It’s why she’s still afraid of water — and has still yet to learn how to swim.

After playing in China for five years, Zhang was selected to play for the Singapore national team and moved south by herself at age 13.

Looking back, the 33-year-old said, “I’m pretty proud of myself to do that.”

A year after moving to Singapore, at 14, Zhang competed at her first international tournament. But after six years, she was ready to hang up her racquet.

“In 2010 I retired from playing,” Zhang said. But that didn’t last long.  

Three years later, she visited a friend in Las Vegas and began training with the Las Vegas Badminton Club. Following a year of undefeated matches, the coach approached her, inquiring if she felt prepared to resume international competition. After the COVID-19 outbreak, she was able to get her American citizenship and has been proudly representing the red, white and blue ever since.

Always a powerhouse in the sport, Zhang was ready to hang up her racquet after competing at her first Olympics in Tokyo in 2021. Heading into the round of 16, Zhang was winning against China when her left Achilles ruptured.

“I wanted to try to finish the game, but I couldn’t even stand up,” Zhang remembered. “When they pushed me in a wheelchair from the courts, I felt like I wasn’t finished and I didn’t want to end my career like that.”

Now that she’s qualified for Paris, she is on a mission to pick up where she left off.

Beiwen Zhang competes in badminton during the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Oct. 25, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Getty Images)

“I didn’t think I was going to play in 2024 because going into 2021, I thought it was my last year. But now, I really want to beat China,” she laughed. “They have the best resources. Players don’t need to do anything but play — that is their job.”

Zhang has been fortunate that the money she earns from her sponsors is enough to keep her on the courts, but sometimes it means traveling without a coach or support staff.

“My coach, Ding Chao, is in Singapore, so when I’m training, he’s there but he can’t always travel with me because of financial reasons,” she shared. “I can only afford for myself to go and compete.”

You also won’t see her family cheering for her on the sidelines — but that’s for a different reason.

“My parents are not able to watch me play because they get too nervous,” Zhang said. The no-spectator rule in Tokyo was a welcome idea for Zhang who said she feels pressure when it comes to her sport and her parents.

“Now they are chill because they see me happy so they don’t focus on what I’m doing,” she said.

Despite that, she said she will probably go to Paris alone — even though she intends for this to be her last Games. But while she will soon close out her competitive career, she doesn’t intend to quit the sport.

“I plan to retire at the end of the year,” Zhang shared, “but I probably won’t stop playing because I want to keep promoting the sport.”

Her plan is to travel around the U.S. visiting as many badminton clubs as she can. She wants to use her name to educate people on how they can get started in the sport.

“Parents don’t know how badminton works,” she shared. “They think they have to pay for their kids to learn and things like a coach, but they don’t really know the system and how they can be earning money from it.

It’s a great sport and it’s for all ages. I feel like if we can promote badminton correctly, we can make this sport a big sport like tennis or basketball.”

But first, she wants to take a long nap.

“After my career ends, I want to lie down for at least a year. I don’t want to do anything,” she laughed. “I’m really tired. I’ve been doing this for like 20 years, so mentally I need a break.”

Once she’s rested, she has plans to open a badminton club in Las Vegas and hopes to secure investors once the Olympics are over.

For now, her priority is finishing what she started in Tokyo.

The thing she is most looking forward to in Paris is “going for the medals because last time I was so close. I think I can do it!” she proclaimed.