“I was always, you know, I was the kid with the Doc Martens and the black T-shirts and reading literature,” Becky Ances says, “and sports were stupid and jocks were stupid, and they were just wasting their time.”
Not only were sports never part of Becky’s early life, but doctors said playing sports could actually endanger her life.
“In college, I was diagnosed with a blood vessel disorder in my intestines, which led to internal bleeding. So I had several blood transfusions in college, and I was severely anemic,” she says. “You know, that was tough, but you learn to live with it.”
Living with it meant no sports — which was just fine with Becky.
“My internal organs are kind of fragile and easily injured,” she says. “They said, ‘Don’t do any heavy weightlifting or any vigorous sports.’ And I was, like, ‘All right. That’s fine with me.’ I could still walk. I could still hike mountains.”
And Becky could still travel, which was her real passion. After graduating from Boston’s Emerson College in the late ’90s, Becky and her husband drove cross country twice and traveled around the world, visiting more than 30 countries.
‘Are You Ever Coming Back?’
Becky’s transformation began in the city of Hangzhou, a 2 1/2 hour drive from Shanghai. She landed a six-month gig teaching English — a job that would help her save some money before moving on.
“And then it was, like, one more year. And then, one more year, and, OK, one more year,” Becky says. “And, finally, you know, got divorced from the guy, sold the house, friends took the cats. And now, I’ve given up on saying one more year. It’s basically forever now. Now my family is, like, ‘Are you ever coming back?’ And I’m, like, ‘Hmm. I don’t know.’ “
Thirteen years after Becky’s initial diagnosis, she began to suffer excruciating abdominal pain. She headed to the hospital, and after a series of tests, doctors delivered the news:
“‘You have stage 4 liver cancer. It looks like your pancreas is also involved,’ ” Becky recalls hearing. “‘We’ll need to do some more tests, but it looks like you have three to six months left to live. We’ll need to do some more tests to see if there’s treatment available, but the hospital is all full right now. So you’ll have to come back Wednesday. We can check you in Wednesday.’
“So, I had to go home by myself and I had to spend the next three days with, ‘You have three to six months left to live’ ringing through my head. If it was true, I was obviously going to quit my job immediately, and, you know, have a wonderful last three to six months.”
‘You Can’t Waste Time’
As it turned out, the doctors were 100 percent wrong. Becky had no cancer. But it wasn’t all good news. The vascular disorder she’d been diagnosed with in Boston had progressed. Her capillaries were growing out of control and were overtaking her major organs, she said, like ivy on a brick wall.
“There’s nothing to be done about it. My liver is OK now,” Becky says. “It might, slowly, over time — or it will, slowly, over time, kind of, disintegrate. And I might need a new liver in the future. But, luckily, the death sentence was removed from my head.
“It definitely changes your life. It definitely changes everything that comes after it. And if I was walking slowly before, this was just like a push. And it was, like, you have to do what you want to do, and you can’t waste time.”
Here’s where sports comes in. It happened quite accidentally, when Becky moved to Xiamen, a colonial port city on the Chinese mainland, just across the Taiwan Strait.
“It was a new city. I knew nobody,” she says. “So I met a lot of people, and I had this group of friends. They were international, mostly Europeans. And they played badminton every Tuesday and Thursday. And they invited me, and I always said ‘no.’ But one night it was my friend’s birthday, and it was a badminton night. So my other friends arranged a surprise party after badminton. So, I figured if I’m going to the surprise party after badminton, I might as well just go to badminton, as well.”
‘Maybe I Actually Like The Sport’
Becky went for it. For the first time in her adult life, she played a sport. But it wasn’t love at first swipe.
“My first time playing badminton, I wasn’t impressed. I wasn’t good” she says. “And I would play badminton in, like, my khaki pants and my New Balance sneakers and my cotton T-shirt. I didn’t have any sports clothes. I didn’t have any sports equipment. I hate sweating.
“So, I told my friends, ‘So, does this place get hot in the summer?’ And they were, like, ‘Oh, yeah. It gets really hot, and it smells really bad.’ And I was, like, ‘All right, well when summer comes, I’m gonna stop playing badminton. ‘Cause I hate sweating. I hate smelly people.’ And, you know, May, and June, and July, and I kept playing.”
In the thick, breezeless air of an indoor Chinese badminton court, the temperature often hovers in the 90s.
“And I was, like, ‘Why am I still playing badminton?’ Like, I hate being so hot and, like, it did smell really bad, and I was, like, ‘Why am I still playing it?'” Becky remembers. “And I was, like, ‘Do I like badminton? I think I actually like the sport.’ “
So now, it’s China, forever. And badminton, everything.
“I play every day,” she says. “Every day except Fridays. I play about 18 hours a week, I figured it out. So, I play, like, yeah, four hours, three to four hours a night. And I super love it. It is so weird.”
Becky loves it so much that she competes in amateur tournaments. She even hired a coach, a 20-year veteran of the sport named Lin Ze Xiong.
“Xiao Bing’s biggest advantage is she is persistent, earnest and never gives up,” says Lin in Chinese, using Becky’s Chinese name. “These are the most important and irreplaceable qualities that all athletes must have to become a master hand. She is very committed to her goal. A lot of people give up when facing obstacles. But not Xiao Bing.”
The Benefits Of Badminton
And what of Becky’s illness? Competitive badminton is a vigorous sport — Becky sprints about 4 miles during a 90-minute match — but she hasn’t had any episodes of bleeding since picking up the sport 2 1/2 years ago.
“I think badminton has helped me physically a lot,” she says. “I’ve always had a lot of energy. I’ve always been a very energetic person. But now I have, like, crazy amounts of energy. And I don’t know if it’s helped me in terms of my health problems. There’s, kind of, no way to measure that. But it’s definitely helped me in my daily life.”
Becky concedes that her life will be shortened because of her illness. In the meantime…
“Would I play badminton so vigorously if I didn’t have that experience? I don’t know,” she says. “Because, it’s, like, badminton — I love badminton so much, and I just want to improve. And I don’t want to waste my time doing other things. I don’t want to waste my time, like, going out with my friends and going to bars, because I used to do that a lot. But that won’t help badminton.
“And I think being sick and having, you know, this problem has definitely helped me be braver in life, I guess, you know? And just, kind of, go for what I want to go for.”
Last summer, Becky met an American who claimed to be good at badminton. He had played it as a child in his backyard.
“I said, ‘All right, let’s go play,’ ” she recalls. “So, we went to the courts and we went with two Chinese friends. And we’re just hitting the bird back and forth, just warmups. And we hit it for about five, 10 minutes and he was, like, ‘OK, I’m gonna take a break. I’m gonna take a break.’ And he was sweating, and he was out of breath. And I said, ‘Take a break?’ And he was, like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Badminton’s hard.’ And I was like, ‘Uh, we’re not playing yet. We’re just warming up.’ “