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Table tennis, trampoline, track and more – U of T athletes at Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games

Michelle Li (photo by MikeRidewood/Ben Stevenson/COC)

University of Toronto student Michelle Li is U of T's first double medallist at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games – with a gold medal in singles badminton and a bronze in the doubles competition.

To take the gold, Li had to beat her doubles partner, Rachel Honderich.

“We both know each other's game really well, so I think that makes it harder,” Li told CBC Radio's Matt Galloway on Metro Morning July 17. “It's kind of like a chess game, we're always changing strategies.”

Li's gold medal capped the first week of the Games, which saw triumph for U of T rower Kate Sauks, who also took gold in women's lightweight double sculls, equestrienne Belinda Trussell who won team silver in dressage – and swimmer Zack Chetrat who won bronze and broke the Canadian record in the 200m butterfly. (Read more about their triumphs.)

But there is much more to come. World champion trampolinist Rosie MacLennan, a gold medallist at the 2012 Olympics, is set to compete on July 19 and Olympic hurdler and national champion Sarah Wells will compete July 22. (See City TV's story on Wells.)

Who are some of the other U of T alumni and students preparing for the Games?

UTM's Anqi Luo

When table tennis phenom Anqi Luo takes her place at the table during the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, the University of Toronto student will be one to watch. 

Considered the best Canadian table tennis player in her age group, Luo will compete in doubles and singles events as part of Canada’s six-member table tennis team.

Although she is just 18 years old, this won’t be Luo’s first time at the Games. The Streetsville resident, who will start her first year as a commerce student at U of T Mississauga this fall, was the youngest member of the Canadian team in the 2011 Pan Am Games in Mexico, and was the youngest-ever competitor from any country at 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. She has chalked up major experience in international competition over the past decade, making it to the playoff rounds in the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China, and winning a bronze with doubles partner Mo Zhang at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Luo was born in China, and moved to Canada when she was eight years old. It was the basement of her family home in Mississauga that she started to play table tennis, learning from two top players – her parents. Both of Luo's parents were top professional players in China, and are now coaches at the club where Luo trains, Mississauga’s Elite Table Tennis Training Centre. Luo’s mother, Junya Chen, is head coach of the Canadian Women’s National Team, making Chen her daughter’s coach.

To prepare for the Toronto games, Luo spent June at a training camp in China where she worked intensively with her new doubles partner, Quebec’s Alicia Côté. The team played for six hours every day, along with weights, running and flexibility training. Back in Canada, she continued training sessions, playing for four hours daily.

At the table, Luo grasps her wooden paddle (known in official play as a racket) in a shake hands-style grip (“It’s better for backhand,” she says) and skiffs it across the top of the celluloid ball. Using one of a number of offensive strokes – a hit, a smash or a flick – Luo sends the ball over the net, putting a spin on the ball to limit her opponent’s options to return the shot.

Luo loves the precision of the sport. “The ball is small and each set requires a lot of control,” she says. “You have to think about the placement, speed and spin of the ball.” A good spin will cause the ball to bounce at an unexpected angle when it hits the table. There isn’t time for error – the pace of a game a Luo’s level is lighting-quick.

“The games are very short – just half an hour to 45 minutes long – so it’s important to be able to quickly assess and adjust to my opponent’s style,” Luo says. She anticipates her most serious Pan Am competition will come from the Brazilian and American teams. “I have met most of the players at other international competitions." Knowing their playing styles will be an advantage, but she says she’ll have to learn fast about the strengths of the newer members of the opposing teams.

Her talent and training have taken her far, but Luo also admits to a little pre-game superstition – the colour of shirt in which she wins her first match becomes her lucky colour for the rest of the tournament.

While her physical training is intense, Luo’s mental preparation is more laid back. “I don’t think about the game too much, she says. “The best way is to relax, and play the game as you should.”

Now a senior player, Luo plans to scale back on international competitions to stay focused on schoolwork as she enters her first year at UTM. “Junior competition was an equal mix of fun and competitive tournaments”, she says, but the pressure increases at the senior level where many opponents are professional players. Luo will keep her eye on the ball, however – she hopes to compete with the Canadian Olympic team for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Luo and the six-member Canadian table tennis team compete from July 19 to 25 at the Markham Pam Am Centre.

Watch a young Anqi Luo in the short documentary, On The Ball.

Engineering's Sasha Gollish & Donna Vakalis

PhD candidate Donna Vakalis competes for Team Canada in the modern pentathlon and PhD candidate Sasha Gollish runs for Canada in the 1500m.

When they’re not training, Vakalis studies the impact of indoor building environments on public health and productivity under the supervision of civil engineering professors Heather MacLean and Jeffrey Siegel and Gollish is one of the first students enrolled in the Faculty’s new collaborative program in engineering education (EngEd), supervised by civil engineering professor Bryan Karney.

U of T Engineering spoke to both athletes in the days leading up to the games to find out how they balance engineering and sport.

What has it been like since you found out you made Team Canada?

Gollish: It’s been a total rush for sure! But it only happened recently so I’m not even sure it has totally sunk in. My goal was to qualify for the Pan Ams, but my other goal was to run fast. So I’ve been travelling a lot and continuing to compete.

Vakalis: I’ve been focused on world championships, which just happened last weekend, in Germany. It may sound like a lot all at once, but it’s actually useful because it’s a little tricky to peak twice in a year. You don’t want them too far apart, or right on top of each other, but two weeks is actually perfect.

Let’s talk about what it took to get here. When did you decide that you were going to go for it?

Gollish: Last summer I was competing in Leuven, Belgium, in a series that is basically like the Belgian Cup. I ran a 4:13 and I thought, hey, if I can run that now, I wonder what I can run next summer.

Vakalis: The fall after I competed [at the Olympics] in London, I started school. At that point I thought it might be time to retire, because it just requires a lot of energy in addition to being a full-time student. However, I surprised myself and learned how to be even more efficient with my time. At the beginning of this school year I found myself being really fit and eager to compete. I had to make a choice, am I going to go for it or not? I made that choice, and my supervisors fortunately were supportive. The goal of this whole season has been to qualify for Pan Ams.

When did you realize you actually had a shot?

Gollish: It wasn’t until I ran at Harry Jerome, part of the national series which was June 9 in Vancouver. The rankings were really tight and I was sitting in third position. There just weren’t that many fast races in North America, and I was trying to really push my boundaries. Plus there are a lot of awesome middle-distance runners right now in Canada: Kate Van Buskirk, Hilary Stellingwerff, Sheila Reid, Nicole Siffuentes. It could have been any two of us that were named to that team.

Vakalis: I was at a world cup in Rome in April. Because of how our qualification system works, they take our top two scores from last year’s world championships and the four world cups. At the moment I crossed the finish line in Rome, I knew I had done what it takes to qualify.

Why did you choose to do graduate studies at U of T?

Gollish: U of T is a pretty awesome engineering school to get into. It’s also got a phenomenal running program, and my coaches are the varsity coaches, so it’s a natural fit.

Another reason was my supervisor, Bryan Karney. We met a few years ago, and we share a passion for the science, the math. I call it the ‘Enginerd’ passion. My other background is coaching, so the Engineering Education (called EngEd) program is a really unique way to blend the skills of coaching and engineering.

Vakalis: There were multiple reasons. I knew I wanted to live in Toronto, and from doing my masters here, I knew U of T has a really strong school with a rigorous academic program. But I also care a lot about the people and atmosphere in the department. For me the single most important factor was meeting the professors and their students. Now, finishing up my third year I feel like I am part of a really smart, ambitious, supportive family.

Have you learned anything as an engineer that has affected your athletics, or vice versa?

Gollish: I take a very scientific approach to things, which I think is probably rooted in studying engineering. With running, there are a lot of fads that come and go, but I always look to see what the science says.

There’s also the whole efficiency game. I’m always trying to be efficient with my time, and maximize it, to use a calculus term. It’s not necessarily about doing more with less effort, but asking how can I get the most out of each day

Vakalis: There are so many connections if you are willing to think analogically. For example, as an athlete you can start to see connections between the structural properties of materials and the way your body works. I was recovering from an injury earlier this year, and it was helpful to understand the mechanics of my body, in order to heal smarter and faster.

In the other direction, being a pentathlete who has to execute moves perfectly when an Olympic berth will be on the line, it helps to be able to think clearly under tremendous pressure. That’s helpful for standing up and teaching a class, or being able to answer a challenging question in front of your thesis defence committee.

What is it like to be competing on home turf in Toronto?

Gollish: Obviously it’s pretty cool. Most athletes don’t get that opportunity, but it also comes with a host of pressures. You’ve got all your friends and family who are super-stoked to come out and watch you, and there’s the feeling that you have to perform.

But you don’t. At the end of the day, they know how hard you worked, they know how dedicated you are. If it doesn’t go that well they still love you.

Vakalis: In modern pentathlon, we’ve never had a world cup in Canada, so this is a first in terms of the caliber of competition at home. Honestly, I don’t think I will even know how much it means until the day I compete. There are members of my family and really close friends who have never been able to watch me compete, who will be there in the stands next weekend.

When I think of them it’s a very acute and intense feeling, but I also feel a little bit of that same feeling about the whole community. Having U of T students and Torontonians around, and being able to share with them something that is a big part of my life, and is really important to me. It feels really special, because it is.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Cheering on the sidelines and through social media

These Games are allowing Team Canada's 733 athletes to compete at home in front of cheering crowds and thousands of enthusiastic volunteers – but the support is demonstrated online as well, on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and now, YouTube.

Hana, Hasna, and Sarah Syed are students at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where so many of the Games events are being held. They're also U of T Ambassadors at the Games and volunteer at U of T House at UTSC.

With their brother, Bilal, the siblings form a group called DEYSOfficial. Below, they perform a song they wrote to celebrate the Games: