Lights, Camera, Smash! Isabel Zhong finds balance between badminton and acting career

Isabel Zhong lost in the first round of the India Open in 2019. IMDb

If most professional badminton players were ever to google themselves, the first result would likely be their BWF (Badminton World Federation) profile. In the case of Isabel Zhong of U.S., a singles competitor at the India Open, you might just get her IMDb (Internet Movie Database) profile instead.

Zhong has only been acting for a couple of years but has a fairly comprehensive body of work comprising a movie, two TV shows and four short films to her credit. She's also shot a number of TV commercials and has another film in the works.

The 26-year-old from Los Angeles didn't start out intending to be an actor though. Badminton was her first passion, and it runs in her family. Her father Wei Zhong was a former badminton coach who was deputed by the Chinese government to coach in Peru where Zhong was born. "Before he went there, dad was the coach in China too. One of his students was (former Olympic bronze medallist and subsequently China national coach) Li Yongbo," says Zhong.

When the family moved to the U.S. a year after her birth, Zhong would pick up the sport, eventually winning a junior national title. But she gave it up not long after. "There isn't a lot of money in badminton in the U.S.. There isn't a lot of support nor a lot of sponsors. I was thinking of my future, so I decided to go to school and get a regular job. It was more of a recreational thing and I happened to be good at it. I took a seven-year break from it," says Zhong.

She got a degree in psychology and worked for a while in San Francisco, California, before returning to Los Angeles, where her parents run a recreational badminton club. "At that time it was either get another job or try something new. I wanted to challenge myself so I decided to get back into it," she says.

Acting happened around the same time. "It started because I was scouted to audition. I was just walking in the streets when a woman approached me and asked me if I wanted to be in a movie. I gave an audition, got called back for another and eventually I got to act," she says.

"My acting subsidises my badminton. I'm using my savings to pay for it." Isabel Zhong

She made her acting debut in Kayla, an American-Chinese co-production alongside award-winning Chinese co-stars Lu Liping and Sun Haiying. She's since acted regularly, but sometimes it does comes in the way of her badminton career.

"It did make it quite difficult. I got cast for the movie when I just started training again so it forced me to delay training for a couple of months," says Zhong. "I try to take less intensive jobs. Things like commercials because that only requires shoots for one or two days. A movie would take one or two months so I try not to do that anymore."

Zhong has been balancing the two for the past three years but says she prioritises her badminton. "I'm leaning more towards badminton because I have put more effort into it. I haven't put in that effort into acting. I haven't studied acting. So I want to follow my dreams in badminton and see where that goes," she says.

But Zhong admits her acting career is important too, especially since badminton is still a relatively less lucrative sport. "It definitely is a sacrifice. My acting subsidises my badminton. I'm using my savings to pay for it," she says.

While others might use a break in the international calendar to rest, Zhong will be making the rounds of the casting offices in Hollywood. "This is my third tournament in a row. In May I will have a big break and that's when I will go for a lot more auditions," she says.

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Chasing birds all day, every day😽. Please excuse my derp of a face. Can't stop, won't stop🏸💃 -- Bye Orleans! Wish I could move here and fall in love in such a beautiful city with such friendly people, but it's time for India, and then finally back home to Los Angeles so I can get some true rest and recovery 🙏 -- . . . . . . . . . . . . . . #photooftheday #inspiration #motivation #fitness #fitgirl #femaleathlete #blogger #athlete #badmintonplayer #teamusa #badminton #ilovebadminton #asianmodel #actress #model #quirky #empowerment #배드민턴 #バドミントン #羽毛球 #Bulutangkis #ਬੈਡਮਿੰਟਨ #🏸 #badminton🏸 #orleans #orleansmasters #france #shuttler #sunday #smoothlegs

A post shared by 🇺🇸 ISABEL ZHONG 鍾蕊 🏸|🎭 (@isabelzhongmeow) on

Restarting her career after such a long break means Zhong has a long gap to bridge between her and her contemporaries, who have been playing all their lives. She has an overall win/loss record of 21-69, a statistic that was made to look worse owing to her 0-7 run this year following a bad bout of food poisoning she is just recovering from.

Yet she hopes that her game will eventually get better. "I probably have another three to four years of professional badminton left. I really hope I can play at the All England. That would just be amazing," she says.

Despite the struggle, Zhong prefers the floodlights, sweat and grime of the courts to the arc lights of the movie studio. "I enjoy being out of the courts because it feels a lot more real. You see the hard work that goes on. Being on the screen is more of a finished product. It's a lot more edited. You don't really know how it's going to turn out. You don't know what's real and not real," she says.