Badminton’s Michelle Li, plagued by injury in Rio, is on the mend after surgery

Badminton's Li rebounding from double surgery

TORONTO — Michelle Li felt like she’d been hit by a truck.

It was October, and Li had just woken up from surgery to repair tears in both her hip and knee — a moment that marked the end, hopefully, of the chronic pain that had plagued her at the Rio Olympics, and the beginning of a new chapter in her badminton career.

“It was definitely a new experience,” Li said dryly, of her double surgery.

Canada’s most successful badminton player ever was a broken-down wreck in Rio, playing with two labral tears in her hip, a tear in her patellar tendon in her knee and a stress fracture in her foot. She learned about the severity of the injuries only a couple of months before the Games, so there was no time to repair them.

The 25-year-old from Markham, Ont., didn’t make the round, dropping a close 2-1 decision to India’s P.V. Sindhu who went on to claim silver.

There were the inevitable what-ifs.

“It was definitely very emotional, because I wasn’t very far from winning that match, and obviously it goes through my head. . . if I had that extra bit of movement range, because it did hinder my training with the injuries,” Li said. “But mentally I tried not to focus on it because there was really nothing I could do, all I could do was play.”

Li took some time off after Rio, and then “rather than just kind of keep going for the next year and see how it goes,” she plotted a four-year course of action aiming for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Repairing her broken body was at the top of her list. There was no need to repair the stress fracture in her foot during surgery. Her six weeks on crutches took care of that.

Since then it’s been countless hours of gruelling rehab at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario for the University of Toronto management student.  

“It was basic things like simple movements, because sometimes I even had trouble walking,” Li said. “All the muscles that have been sleeping for so long, the rehab was just about waking them up and starting to engage the right muscles and then rebuilding the muscles that I lost. I barely touched a racket, it was all in the gym and getting stronger.”

Li and partner Alexandra Bruce were fourth in doubles at the 2012 London Olympics, Canada’s top Olympic finish ever in the sport. In one of Canada’s biggest stories in London, the duo — nicknamed “Bruce-Li” — advanced to the quarter-finals after the top two teams in their group were disqualified for intentionally throwing their matches for an easier draw. Li and Bruce went on to beat Australia’s Leanne Choo and Renuga Veeran en route to fourth.

Li is also a six-time Canadian champion, a three-time Pan Am Games gold medallist and Commonwealth Games gold medallist.

She’ll see her surgeon in a couple of weeks and hopefully be cleared for full training. She hopes to compete in April. The world championships are in August in Glasgow. 

“I want to focus on getting myself back to that level, and my ranking also dropped in the last six months (from No. 20 in Rio to 35th), so if it means having to play the smaller tournaments and building myself up again, I’m fine with that,” she said. “But I’m definitely working towards getting myself back to the top 10, and staying there consistently and staying healthy.”

Best of all, she’s feeling better than she has in a long time.

“I feel great. You kind of don’t know what you’ve been missing until you’ve got it back,” she said. “I can definitely feel my body getting stronger and getting faster.

“The experience has definitely changed me a lot. It’s been a while since I’ve felt like this about my body, where I can actually feel in control of my movement on court. And feeling strong and almost more confident too, and very excited to see what’s going to come from this. 

“Because it goes through my head — I was injured but I could still play with the top players in the world and it will be nice to see what it’s like to play  without hurting.”

Lori Ewing , The Canadian Press