For Xi “Cici” Zhang, the territory might be foreign, but the game remains the same. The 32-year-old Chinese native, who earned a Bronze medal for beach volleyball in the 2008 Olympics, has brought her talents stateside to the AVP tour. Mowing her way through the qualifiers into the main draw with her partner Kimberly Smith this past weekend in New York, the well-traveled Zhang marveled at the backdrop of the tournament after visiting the city for the first time ever.
“This is a very special court because the view is very beautiful from playing above the water,” Zhang said after her Saturday main draw match. “It’s different playing [alongside] the ocean.”
The two-time Olympian curtailed her playing in 2013, citing a back injury and a desire to focus on her studies. After completing her degree, she moved to the United States in 2016 to begin an intensive ESL program at Long Beach State. She was unsure if her body could withstand the demands of playing and if she could fit in playing around her study schedule.
“After FIVB, I stopped playing for three years,” she said. “I finished my bachelor’s degree. I wanted to come here to study my master’s. I didn’t know if I could play because of my injury. When I arrived here, my friends, we started to play each other for fun; then the feeling started to come back. I was trying to balance studying while I was playing.”
She entered two AVP tournaments at the end of 2016, both times with a partner that came on short notice. As she entered the 2017 season, she reflected on the challenges that come with finding a partner after playing with Chen Xue for a seven-year run that included 15 FIVB titles and the aforementioned two Olympic berths.
“I think everything has to build up in the first place,” she said. “Me and Xue played seven years, so we were used to each other. Some things I didn’t need to think about, because I knew what she was thinking. Now everything is new, so I have to focus on what is she like and what I need to do, so I have to learn a lot of new things.”
After a run with another Olympian in Nicole Branagh during the Huntington Beach Open in May, Zhang has settled in with 24-year-old Kimberly Smith, a former standout at Florida Atlantic University. Despite only practicing a few times together before they played in Austin, she sensed a great opportunity to make this pairing happen.
“I got lucky to find Kim,” she said. “We didn’t know each other before we played in Austin. We only practiced three times. I think we have good chemistry, so we are staying together.”
While Zhang felt fortunate to have the 6’3” Smith as a presence at the net, her younger partner was equally as excited to have Zhang by her side. In the short time they have been teammates, Smith has taken to the mentoring that Zhang brings to the court.
“She’s taught me so much,” Smith said after one of their matches at the AVP New York City Open. “Even just like the mental stuff; I played indoor my whole life, so learning how to switch and go from six people to two people, it’s been an ongoing battle. She helps me with that. She even knows a ton about blocking and she’s a defender. She gives me little tidbits, and she’s always checks, ‘Do you want me to stop?’ And I’m like, ‘No please, tell me more.’”
On the court, Zhang maintains an even keel that is the trademark of a veteran competitor, whereas the younger Smith is more of the extrovert in between the lines. Together, their contrasting demeanors have helped to balance this emerging team.
“We just have good personality to kind of counter balance each other,” Smith said. “It’s good that she kind of keeps me level and I kind of bring the fire a little bit, so it’s been good that way.”
While Zhang might not be back to the form that earned her the 2008 FIVB Most Outstanding Player, she felt that if she could excel on the court, it would raise the level of what the pair could achieve.
“I think if I am good, that kind of helps her,” she said. “That’s why for now, we kind of help each other.”
The pair made it through the qualifying rounds to finish ninth in the main draw in New York City. Zhang was often observed pensively studying her opponents in between matches; however, away from the sand, she was all smiles about being back in the game and working towards a new goal of success in the United States on the AVP tour.
“Right now, I am just enjoying it.”