Seattle, Wash., United States, June 23, 2017 - One of the most visible Chinese players on the women’s FIVB World Tour from 2004 to 2013 was Xi Zhang. But what ever happened to the 6-foot tall 2013 world champion and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist?
Astute observers of the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) tour might have noticed her competing with Nicole Branagh at the season opener in Huntington Beach, California - or in Austin, Texas, New York City or her this weekend paired with Kimberly Smith.
So far, Zhang, 32, has yet to finish higher than ninth on the American tour, but then again, the FIVB’s Most Outstanding Player (in 2008) and FIVB’s Best Defensive player (in 2010) has been doing double-duty since moving to California in 2016. The two-time Olympian has been learning to master English. A writer for the FIVB recently caught up on the rest of her life, job-hunting, and the difference between Beach Volleyball culture in China and the West Coast.
QUESTION - When did you officially retire from the FIVB?
XI ZHANG - “In 2013. I injured my lower back from using it too much. The thing between the bones, the disk, is broken, it’s out. Athletes want to play forever but sometimes it happens, an injury. I stopped playing for three years. For the first year, when I wasn’t playing, it was frustrating. It was very hard. I managed to go to school to study in China and work on my bachelor’s degree in law. Usually it takes four years. I took eight years to get it because I was always playing, so I had to start again, start again, start again. I finished my studies in 2015. But around 2014, I met a yoga teacher. He had an injury, too, and he had the experience to help fix it. He tried to help me. After three or four months, I felt better. But in that time, I didn’t decide to start playing again. I just said: okay, I can walk.”
QUESTION - Is this your first full season on the AVP tour?
XI ZHANG - “Yes. When I moved to California, everything is Beach Volleyball: people talking about Beach Volleyball, people watching Beach Volleyball. So my friends encouraged me to start again. They said, ‘You don’t need to have good result – just enjoy it.’ Right now, I’m enjoying it.”
QUESTION - Will you and your partner Kimberly Smith play all the remaining tournaments together?
XI ZHANG - “I don’t like change, so I think we will stay for a while.”
QUESTION - What prompted your move to the U.S.?
XI ZHANG - “I wanted to study for my master’s.”
QUESTION - Master’s in law?
XI ZHANG - “I’ve not decided yet because my English is not good enough. In school, they make lectures. When I feel comfortable doing that, I will start my master’s degree. I’m taking time to build my English skills. I went to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Long Beach City College. Now everybody knows I want to learn English so everybody talks to me in English - even my Chinese friends.”
QUESTION - Where do you live now?
XI ZHANG - “In Huntington Beach, California, with my roommate - a person from China. We didn’t know each other in China, but now we know each other.”
QUESTION - Have you been back to China since 2016?
XI ZHANG - “I usually go home two times a year. In July, my mom, Zhang Wongmei, is coming to visit. It will be her first time in the U.S. She plans to stay here three or four months. A long time! I miss her cooking!”
QUESTION - Has Beach Volleyball grown in China? And if so, do you think you played a role in that?
XI ZHANG - “In China, they still need to make the children like Beach Volleyball. In California, it’s so different. The whole beach plays in their leisure time - even 6-year-old kids play it. The ball is bigger than their head but they still play! They work on fundamentals. So, China has to think about bringing Beach Volleyball to the schools and getting the kids to love beach volleyball. It’s popular in China but when people talk about Beach Volleyball in China, they only think about professionals. But actually, everyone can play it and we can enjoy the strategy.”
QUESTION - How, then, did you begin to play beach volleyball in China?
XI ZHANG - “I started playing indoor volleyball when I was 11 years old. I started Beach Volleyball at 17 years old.”
QUESTION - Was the transition your choice, or did a Chinese selector make the decision?
XI ZHANG - “Both. Indoors, I was a setter but it’s boring for me. I don’t like to set all the time. I like to hit. So I changed to Beach Volleyball. At that time, Beach Volleyball wasn’t popular so we went through a very hard time. When we started to travel to America, we started to learn the culture, how to think, how to play, and we started to get better.”
QUESTION - Did you get to pick your Olympic partner Xue Chen? Or did China choose her for you?
XI ZHANG - “China.”
QUESTION - Do you still talk to Xue?
XI ZHANG - “Yeah. I miss her. We played together seven years. She is still playing - with a different partner who is as tall as she is [189 cm, or 6-foot-2]. She’s starting to build up for the next Olympics, I think. She didn’t qualify for Rio.”
QUESTION - Your bronze medal in Beijing and fourth place in London are two of China’s best Olympic results in beach volleyball.
XI ZHANG - “China also had silver, in 2008 [from Tian Jia and Wang Jie]! I think I like my performance London better [than Beijing 2008] because I feel like l got mature. In 2008, I don’t think I totally understood Beach Volleyball. In 2012, I started to know how to read the ball.”
China's Beijing 2008 Olympic medal winners (left to right) Jia Tian, Jie wang, Xi Zhang and Chen Xue
QUESTION - Who beat you in semifinals at the London Olympics?
XI ZHANG - “Kerri Walsh (Jennings) and Misty (May-Treanor). We thought we could win. We were close! We lost by two points! [22-20, 22-20] I really enjoyed that game.”
Xi Zhang of China dives for the Mikasa in the London 2012 Olympic Games against Americans Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings.
QUESTION - Do you still think about that loss in London?
XI ZHANG - “Yes. It’s funny, I look at the video all the time.”
QUESTION - It’s difficult to make a living in the United States. Do you have a job?
XI ZHANG - “I haven’t worked at all. After the season, maybe I’ll go to the schools and be a coach or something.”
QUESTION - College coach or high school coach?
XI ZHANG - “I don’t know. I try everything right now - even the coffee shop. It’s good to learn how to make coffee.”
QUESTION - Wait, are you trying to work at a coffee shop?
XI ZHANG - “They didn’t accept me. I interviewed. I learned how to make coffee. They said my coffee’s good. Then they started to ask me, ‘How many years have you worked in coffee shops?’ I said, ‘Oh no, I didn’t work here before.’ So they said, ‘Oh, okay, I cannot start here.’”
QUESTION - Did you tell them about your two Olympics?
XI ZHANG - “No, I did not.”
QUESTION - Argh!
XI ZHANG - “But it’s a funny story, right?”