Shao Ting is commonly acknowledged as China's best female basketball player. Her resume tells the truth: Five-time CUBA (Chinese University Basketball Association) champion, three-time CUBS (Chinese University Basketball Super-league) champion, two-time WCBA (Women's Chinese Basketball Association) champion and she's the captain of the China national women's basketball team.
Aside from being the only basketball player (male or female) who has won at all levels domestically in China, the 27-year-old, 6-foot forward is also a doctoral student at Beijing Normal University majoring in teacher's education.
She was invited to a tryout with the Minnesota Lynx during their April training camp, at which she was the final cut. Throughout the journey in Minnesota, Shao impressed with her skills, understanding of the game and personality.
"She's done well," Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said during the team's training camp. "I can tell you, of the 14 players that are out there, she's not lost. She's not the one who's lost. I have Americans who are lost."
In China, most athletes come out of a centralized system in which all sports activities are managed and regulated by government entities. They receive a stipend that covers all training-related costs. The athletes spend their time at professional schools and therefore lose the opportunity for academic study. It is a one-way path; young athletes in China have to make their decisions usually no later than middle school age to receive the professional resources and support. A majority of the athletes don't even start high school.
Discussions to improve China's sports development system have been going on for more than a decade. Shao's success balancing her doctoral studies with her game could provide a necessary road map.
"I'm a student who loves playing basketball, and I'm a basketball player who loves studying." Shao said. "It's challenging, it's very challenging. Taking care of school work, training and games at the same time is super hard. If I say it's easy, I'm lying. It's much easier to say but it's much harder to do. Basketball is something I do as an extracurricular activity. My main job has always been studying at school at a regular pace."
Shao was born and raised in Shanghai and was discovered by a basketball coach at age 6, even though she was more interested in art at the time. Her district had a pilot program in which kids with athletic potential were transferred to one school. They would have about two hours of practice time every day after classes. Kids in the program who showed the potential to become professionals were asked to withdraw from regular schooling.
"In China, there's only one way for athletes to develop." Shao said. "You have to go to professional athletic schools, but you would not be able to learn anything because you would train all day long. Young athletes lost their opportunities to study at their golden ages. What if they can't eventually make the professional teams or national teams? What if they have to end their career before earning anything? "
Both Shao and her family believed that combining regular schooling with professional training was the best way to go. Shao started to get used to what later on becomes her life routine: wake up early for study, attend all classes if she doesn't have games and then travel to professional athletic school for training afterward.
"No way to do it," said Yuan Feng, Shao's former teammate at Shanghai. "You are in the athletic school, you need to train 6-8 hours every single day. Either you make it to professional teams or you are burned out. No way for you to maintain the high level of basketball training and regular schooling at the same time. Shao Ting made it, but there's only one Shao Ting."
Shao was invited to special training sessions with Shanghai's professional youth team right after she entered the high school. She was told she'd have the opportunity to play for the Shanghai team while attending school regularly. But only a few days later, Shao noticed something was off.
"They tricked me, and I found it out later." Shao said. "They want me to join the team, they want me to withdraw from the school. They knew that I wouldn't do it so they decided to promise me something good and change their promise by gradually asking me to do more on this side to eventually fail my classes and become a one-way athlete. I appreciated they believe in me on [the] basketball court, but I was mad about it. So I went to them and told them that I'm going back to school."
Because of her insistency and elite basketball skills, she was able to keep training with the Shanghai team and even play for them when her class schedule allowed. Before graduating from high school, Shao had drawn attention from a few other professional teams. Shao once again had the opportunity to become a full professional player, but she turned it down.
Shao set Beijing Normal University as her goal, not only because it's the best teacher preparation university in China but because the school had just established a partnership with the Sichuan province basketball team.
After winning 5 CUBA championships and 3 CUBS championships for Beijing Normal University and beginning to work on her master's degree, Shao needed to figure out her future. She had already met the maximum limit of games for a student-athlete, so she needed to become a professional player or end up left without a place to play.
Beijing Shougang's head coach, Xu Limin, started to talk with Shao one year before Shao's final season at university. Xu Limin, one of the best coaches in China for one of the WCBA's best teams, also is China's national team's head coach. He gained Shao's trust and recruited her to Beijing Shougang.
In 2013, Shao Ting finally became a professional female basketball player at the age of 24. The WCBA season is relatively short so Shao could work out a plan with her advisor in her masters program.
In her first WCBA season she averaged 14.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.5 blocks, running away with the rookie of the year award. Since then she won an All-Star game MVP and back-to-back championships. By 2016 she also was named the captain of China's national team and led the squad in scoring (13.7 PPG) while helping the country qualify for the Rio Olympics. Her performance impressed Reeve, who was an assistant for the U.S. team, leading to her tryout with the Lynx.
"She's the only one, she's the best one," Xu Limin said. "I really hope she can make the WNBA one day and let the world know how good she is."
Shao received her masters in 2014 and began her doctoral program the same year. In November, she'll begin another WCBA season in Beijing. But she holds an even bigger responsibility in her heart.
"Sports were originally designed for men to participate," Shao said. "Even right now, people still appreciate men's performance more than women. That's people's taste.
"Female sports organizations in the U.S. have put in a lot of effort in marketing and promoting themselves, but I didn't see this in China. This is not only China's problem, but also the entire world's problem."
Shao started noticing this disparity even more during her time in Minnesota, and she has chosen to speak out.
"The American female athletes are much better at expressing themselves in public and communicating in an open-minded way.
"The knowledge is unlimited and the world is ever-changing. I love to explore the knowledge and the world. I encourage everyone, especially athletes, to do the same thing. By not giving up learning and serious studying, you are not only enriching your knowledge, but also improving your comprehensive ability as a human. This will show on the basketball court or wherever you play your game, this will make the world a better place."