Lindork’s Lists: Q&A #20: Josephine Wu
Note: this is the public version of my email newsletter Q&A that gets sent to paid subscriber inboxes first every other Sunday. You can get these Q&As in your inbox first by becoming a paid subscriber.
Originally published to newsletter subscribers on Dec 26, 2021
The twentieth person I’m profiling in my newsletter subscriber Q&A series is:
Team Canada Olympic Badminton Player Josephine Wu
Getting to know Josephine Wu:
Josephine Wu is a 26-year-old, Edmonton, Alberta-based professional badminton athlete and part time badminton coach, Team Canada player who recently competed at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (held in 2021 due to the pandemic).
I’ve been following Josephine on social media for years—and was really excited when I started to see posts of her training for, travelling to and competing at the recent Tokyo Olympics. Athletes—especially professional athletes—are a serious marvel. The skill they possess. The work ethic, the talent. To be competing on a global level like Josephine did—you are literally the best of the best and that’s something people should be so impressed and inspired by. When that athlete lives where you live, eats where you eat, is a local athlete—that makes it even more exciting.
I wanted to talk to Josephine about not only what it’s like to be a professional athlete but a professional athlete as an Asian woman—because that does present even more. challenges—as well as what it was like competing in the Olympics during a pandemic. She shared some great insights about dealing with mental health and stress that comes with being a professional athlete, that I think can apply for what any of us do. I also didn’t realize how underfunded professional sports is in Canada.
Josephine is currently working towards qualifying for the 2024 Olympics in Paris and I’m really hopeful and excited for her.
Learn more about Josephine and what it’s like to be a professional badminton player in this Q&A below and be sure to follow and cheer her on over on Instagram.
Let’s Dive Into the Q&A with Josephine Wu:
Can you talk about your background in badminton? When did you start playing, why did you start, what did you love about it, and how did you get so good at it that you came to represent Canada?
My parents used to play badminton for fun at the local recreational centre while I would run around to entertain myself. They were constantly worried that I would run off on my own so when I was six years old and strong enough to hold a racquet, they started throwing shuttles for me to hit. I soon began going to summer camps and my dad remembered I had told him I loved badminton after my first day of camp.
Gradually, I started taking more formal lessons. By age nine, I was training at four different locations. I was really lucky to get the opportunity to learn from so many different coaches but it also meant a lot of sacrifices had to be made. I had training at least once a day and sometimes twice a day. I ate my food in the car after school as my parents would drive me to training. Badminton training and competitions also took precedence over any friend hangout or birthday party so I felt like I missed out on a lot.
I remember being 12 and already feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. Looking back, it makes me sad that I was so young and had already felt that way. The constant cycle of having long days with school, training and then doing homework at night made me so tired but at the same time, I knew I really enjoyed badminton. When I was 12, I began winning junior nationals and junior international tournaments which motivated me to stay in badminton. I made the national team in 2015 and now I just competed in my first Olympics!
My parents really helped facilitate my involvement in badminton, they always pushed me just enough but never overboard. They trusted me and let me figure things out on my own but at the same time, were occasionally your typical “soccer parents”. My parents spent after work hours driving me to training, took time off work to take me to tournaments and recorded my matches to analyze. My mom also exposed me to professional badminton very early on, which helped a lot. My mom is Malaysian, where badminton is extremely popular, and we had a family tradition of watching professional badminton every morning on the weekends. By constantly watching high level badminton, it gave me a lot of ideas for shots and strategies to mimic in my matches.
I think what really drew me to badminton was the problem solving aspect of playing a match. I enjoy the challenge of having to figure out how to outplay my opponent and to recognize my opponent’s playing patterns. Badminton is also such a multi-dimensional sport, there are so many different shots and footwork patterns but it’s also a battle against both yourself and your opponent. I feel that my sport is just a never ending journey of learning and that’s how I have stuck with it for so long. I genuinely love badminton and I think that’s the main reason why I am able to get to the level that I am now.
You just competed at your first Olympics—can you share what that experience was like? Especially with it being during a pandemic? Can you share some of the most memorable moments for you from the Olympics? Challenges? Surprises? Can you also share about your performance? I know you didn’t get the result you wanted—but still such an accomplishment to even compete?
The scale of the Olympics was just nothing I have ever experienced before. I had the opportunity of meeting other top level athletes which I thought was really exciting. There aren’t that many multi-sport events so we don’t get many opportunities to interact with other athletes. It was just interesting for me to learn about other sports and their rules. As a major tennis fan, I definitely had some starstruck moments when I met some of the top tennis players like Djokovic and the eventual Olympic Gold Medalist, Zverev. I also got to see Yao Ming which was also really cool.
The pandemic definitely changed some aspects of the Olympics. We had daily covid testings and were required to stay within the village unless we were heading out to compete or train. The food hall was covered in plexiglass, which made conversing during meals hard if not impossible and of course, we had to wear a mask at all times.
In addition, Team Canada enforced a rule where athletes were sent back home within 24-48hrs of being eliminated from the competition. I was a bit disappointed I could not go and support my own badminton teammates or even fellow Team Canada teammates. Due to my short stay, I felt that I didn’t get to fully enjoy the experience of living inside the village. They had all sorts of services like free haircuts and bikes for you to ride around the village but due to our packed schedules, we did not have time. Our days started at 6 a.m. with covid testing and we would have two practice sessions a day lasting two hours. With our competition hall being located an hour drive away, we would spend four hours alone commuting. In between the training times, we would be scrambling to get treatment done or to get in a quick workout. The whole Olympic week felt really rushed which I did not expect but I was thankful that the Games went on despite the pandemic.
In terms of my performance, I was quite happy with how I played. We didn’t get the results we wanted but I think it was best I could have prepared myself. The pandemic really hurt our progress leading up to the Olympics. We went from training and competing with each other for weeks on end, to not being able to train at all, let alone with each other. My partner was based in the Toronto area while I was in Alberta. I also struggled because I wasn’t given an exemption to train during lockdown until my Olympic invitation was finalized in May, three months before the Games. Training exemptions were only given to hockey players in Alberta, so in order to train, I had to go out of province. I wasn’t able to stay for too long as it was all paid out of my own pocket. Despite all these hurdles, luckily we had two pre-Olympic camps that really helped us prepare.
How much badminton do you do to be an Olympic level badminton player? Are you practicing every day? Every week? Is it early mornings? Late nights? Was it hard to balance during school? Can you share something people may be surprised to learn about Olympic athletes and what you do, or go through?
The couple months before the Olympics I was training twice a day Monday through Fridays, except Wednesdays I would only have one on court session. Then mainly match play on the weekends, supplemented with gym sessions 3-4 times a week to keep the body healthy and strong. I also had to do my training when the badminton club was not as busy so I generally had 9am training and then my afternoon sessions would start at 4pm.
During my undergraduate studies at the University of Alberta, I was only training once a day, 4 to 5 times a week and maybe workout 3 times a week. I also struggled to get more training during my university degree as badminton does not get much funding. I had to do part time coaching and had another part time job to earn extra money to fund my competition expenses. It was difficult balancing both school and badminton during my undergraduate degree but I persevered through the stress because both were equally important to me. I couldn’t decide where I wanted to take badminton but knew I didn’t want to quit. I actually think I became a smarter player during the years I was in school because I knew I wasn’t training as much and had to find other ways to outplay my opponents.
Many people get shocked when I tell them that even as National Team athletes, we don’t get enough funding to cover all of our expenses. Sports that bring in more viewers on TV get more funding such as soccer, hockey, and volleyball. Whereas, badminton is not as popular in Canada, so our funding is not enough to sustain our training and competition expenses. I really struggled financially during the Olympic qualification year as the amount of tournaments we had to play doubled from our normal schedule. Because I was away, I was also unable to coach and earn income. I was really stressed out about budgeting which is why I had started a GoFundMe page. I was so shocked by the amount of support I had received from crowdfunding but it became a great source of encouragement for me on my Olympic qualification journey.
Can you talk about how you maintain your mental health as an Olympic athlete? Or just in general? Do you have anything you do to de-stress, or manage failures, or tough days?
I constantly remind myself that I do what I do because I love my sport. Training, like any other office job, can get repetitive and unenjoyable. I had to learn to change my perspective on training and be more forgiving of myself. I needed to embrace the bad days and learn to make the most of it. It’s not easy, and still isn’t, but like all things we want to master, it requires practice.
I also saw a sport psychologist in the months leading up to the Olympics to help cope with the stresses of the Games and how the pandemic was impacting my training. I think talking to a professional really helped me and I highly recommend it to anyone else struggling.
My therapist really helped me figure out the source of my worries and all the negative feelings I was having. I think it’s also important to recognize that we need rest and when the body says no then we need to respect that. I know I definitely learned that the hard way, but for me, having a healthy body helps keep my mind healthy too!
Other things like planning out my days in the morning and writing in my agenda to keep track of deadlines also prevents me from feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Generally, I like to destress either by listening to music, or just taking a day off to go hike and hang with friends.
You’re doing a lot of travelling post-Olympics—can you describe what your post-Olympics looks like now, where are you going, why are you going where you’re going, are you competing in other competitions now, are you working towards the next Olympics?
Currently, I am trying to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England next summer.
After the Olympics, I had a change in badminton partners. My new partner did not get a chance to compete at all during the pandemic, at the moment we are just building our partnership and getting experience together. I decided at the last minute that I wanted to try to qualify for the last Olympics so the whole qualification process seemed really rushed for me. Rather than focusing on development and experience, it felt like we just needed good results to raise our ranking. Our competitions are mainly in Europe but hopefully our ranking will climb and we can get into the higher level tournaments in Asia next year.
One benefit of being an individual sport is that we get to decide our competition schedule. We have flexibility in deciding where to go and when, which is really nice. Our goal is definitely to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
Can you articulate why you do what you do? Why you love badminton?
To openly say that my full time job is a professional badminton athlete was initially really hard. Mainly because people didn’t understand how I made a living and what was the point if I wasn’t the best in the world.
The amount of people who questioned me actually began to make me question myself. However during the pandemic, I’ve come to appreciate that not everyone gets the opportunity to pursue their passion. I also know that I am not finished with badminton yet and I have yet to reach my full potential.
I want to continue to challenge the international circuit and to show the younger generations in badminton that it takes courage to pursue badminton professionally but it is also rewarding.
I’ve played a variety of sports for fun growing up, but I was instantly drawn to badminton for how complex the game is. The variety of ways you can hit a shuttle and how it’s a battle between both yourself and your opponent, are components of why I find badminton so exciting. There are so many different styles of play and it’s interesting how a certain style can combat another, like a game of rock paper scissors. Because badminton is the fastest racquet sport, the speed of the game itself also makes it thrilling to watch and play.
I know you’re also taking business at the U of A, what does a post-badminton, post-Olympics/competition future look like for you?
Initially, I thought I would retire from badminton and settle into an office job after the Tokyo Olympics. However after playing Tokyo, it only motivated me to want to play in the next Olympic Games. I felt like I have a much clearer understanding of what I need to do and still had lots of room for improvement. My coach also recently announced that he is opening his own badminton club in Edmonton. I plan to do some coaching there and hope to further the sport in not only Edmonton but also Alberta and Canada. We lose a lot of kids in our sport when they reach high school or university. Their priorities change when they reach that stage in life but I hope to change that and convince more kids to stay in sport. I know so many players who trained as kids and quit as they got older, only to regret it later on. In the long run though, I want a job outside of the badminton world to learn other skills but my main goal is to be able to make a positive impact in my community.
Other than the Olympics, can you share a memorable moment or ‘successes’ in your badminton / athlete journey?
I think one of the most memorable moments was winning my first International Challenge title in Adelaide, Australia. It was my first title of that level and we had a challenging semi-final and finals game. It gave my partner and I more confidence going forward into our Olympic qualification because it was just at the right time. We had struggled in the tournaments before, where we would lose by just a close margin and constantly being put in that position felt really discouraging. To have come out on top for that tournament really meant a lot to me. Although my partner and I had shared success in other bigger tournaments, the win in Adelaide was by far the most memorable.
Can you share a challenging moment or obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
The most challenging moment I probably had to overcome was when I tore my achilles tendon in 2014. I was in my first year of Business school then and had just gotten out of the junior division of badminton. My parents were already hinting that maybe it was time to focus more on school and I was also contemplating where I was going with badminton. It became increasingly more difficult to sustain my regular training schedule while taking a full course load in business. I was getting around 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night due to early class times, in order to free up my late afternoons for training, and having late nights trying to get assignments done.
Looking back now, I realize I was extremely burnt out, because I was constantly tired. My body and mind took a huge toll and I wasn’t giving my body the attention it needed for rest and recovery. Eventually, in my first semester of business school, I tore my achilles in a tournament and I thought that maybe that was the end of my badminton journey.
I thought it was a sign to stop as the recovery timeline for a torn achilles was at least 6 months before I could even start training again, let alone compete. However, after getting surgery, I found myself still wanting to go to training just to watch to see what I was missing. I decided to make a goal to try to make a comeback for Nationals which was 4 months post surgery. I started going to the gym every morning before class and I would kneel on a chair to hit shuttles when I was on crutches. When I switched into a walking boot, I would put a towel underneath the boot so I didn’t scratch the floors and do some stationary training. Everyone thought I was crazy and warned me about re-rupturing my achilles. I knew they were concerned for me but back then, I wondered why no one trusted me. I think emotionally I had a hard time because it felt like everyone was against me and I was just trying to fight my way back into badminton. At the same time, I was also balancing the stress of school and the inconveniences of having only one good leg. I remember being really sensitive and getting upset over the simplest things.
In the end, I actually competed in Nationals and won both the doubles and mix doubles category, which led me to be invited onto the National Team. I couldn’t help but feel that tearing my achilles tendon was a defining moment for me in my badminton journey. Had I decided to stop badminton after my surgery, I wouldn’t be where I am today and be able to represent Canada on an international stage.
I love seeing people of colour represented in—well anything but in your case in sports on an international stage. Can you speak to or share any thoughts on diversity and inclusion, or maybe what it might mean for young Asian kids to see someone who looks like them competing at an international level?
I grew up in a traditional Asian household where chasing your passions and dreams was not something that was encouraged. I forced myself to balance school and badminton to satisfy both myself and my parents. I was never ready to let badminton go but I also knew I could not make a living off the sport.
It was extremely difficult for me to tell my parents that I wanted to try to qualify for the Olympics and that I would be pursuing badminton full time. It’s a concept that is not well grasped by traditional families and I had many conflicts growing up. My parents were not against the idea but they were concerned for my future and how I would make a living.
They thought the later I waited to join the workforce, the harder it would be for me later on. Gradually, the nagging stopped and they started encouraging me in the end. I hope that others who also have families with traditional ideologies like mine, won’t be discouraged and be brave enough to chase after their dreams and aspirations. We really only get one chance at our youth and I think we should cherish that time to live it the way we want. It sounds cliche, but everything is a learning experience. Even if we do not succeed, we will always be more knowledgeable than where we started.
Can you share advice for others who might be interested in, well, maybe not competing in the Olympics, but perhaps just doing the very best they can do, or being the best in their field? Mindset? Approach? Reminders?
I think what really helped me was understanding that everyone works at a different pace and that we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. It’s natural to want to compare ourselves with others but if we are too focused on that, then we become easily discouraged. I think it’s also important to understand that we perform differently day to day and what we may do well today, we might not do well tomorrow. It is impossible to perform at 100% of our potential everyday so we need to focus on making the best of what we have to work with. Sometimes we are able to push ourselves at training and other days we need to be thankful we got to the gym and completed the workout we planned.
More importantly, my biggest advice to do well in anything, is to always remind yourself to enjoy what we are doing. Rather than focusing on the result, personal growth is just as important. As long as we are trying our best every time and making the best of the day, then that’s the most we can ask of ourselves. Bad days are normal and even on bad days we can create small goals that we can try to accomplish. My coach always tells me “remember to smile” whenever I am having bad days. I think it really helps me when I get uptight or frustrated at training which has helped me from getting into a negative mindset. I was also once told that as long as what we are doing is bringing you one step closer to your goal then that is enough.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I think a lot of people think that athletes live glorious lives because they only see the parts we post on social media. However, many people don’t see the amount of stress we have to go through to plan and organize training and tournaments. We have to arrange transport, accommodation, practice times, flights and even food for every tournament. It’s even more difficult when we have to organize everything within a certain budget.
Our funding is not enough to cover all the expenses so I coach part-time in order to make extra money. We also face the challenge of not having a coach or manager with us at tournaments. As an individual sport where we plan our own tournament schedules, coaches are usually not sent unless we have a big team competing in the same tournament. I am extremely lucky that recently, my coach has travelled with us to our European tournaments on his own expense. He has been a tremendous help and I could only wish he was with us at every tournament.
As athletes, we face many challenges that people don’t know and see. I just wanted to enlighten others that the life of an athlete is just as challenging and stressful as other jobs, if not more.
Wrapping up our Q&A:
What show would you recommend people watch on Netflix (or other streaming services) and why?
Is there a book or podcast you recently read (or doesn’t have to be recent) that you would recommend to others and why?
I recently read “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*** Down and Rise to the Occasion”. It was quite an easy read with lots of tips on how to handle common issues that athletes face. It really gave me a different perspective into any anxiety or negative feelings I might be experiencing and want to change. I can’t confidently say that it helped resolve anything but, I think it gave me a new perspective on how to handle things and a different approach to try. The case studies in the book also made me realize that I wasn’t the only athlete struggling with similar issues.
What is one of your favourite restaurants or stores you’d recommend in Edmonton?
One of my favourite restaurants is Machef in Edmonton! I love Korean food and Machef is definitely a place I bring all my friends from out of town! I also really enjoy Country Coco when I am craving Korean fried chicken. Ever since they have been opened, I haven’t gotten my fried chicken fix from anywhere else.
What’s something about Alberta you love or recommend others check out?
I definitely love Alberta for the fact that we live so close to the Rocky Mountains and have access to so many nice hikes. Sometimes we need a quick getaway and the mountains are perfect for just that. I highly recommend doing the Tent Ridge Horseshoe hike for those who aren’t afraid of heights. It was a challenging hike but the views were by far the best I have ever seen. I would also suggest checking out the Kananaskis Nordic Spa or going river tubing in Pembina Provincial Park for a more relaxing day. These are popular day trip activities amongst my friends and I when we wanted something more therapeutic.
Thank you Josephine for sharing your story!
You can connect with Josephine on:
Subscribe for More!
As a paid subscriber you’ll receive a weekly email on Wednesday with my curated recommendations on Things To Do, Eat, and Know Each Week, access to giveaways, and more content, plus an exclusive “Q&A with…” every other Sunday.
As a free subscriber you’ll receive the weekly Wednesday email!
(You’ll get the option to subscribe for free or select a paid plan)