BEAVER TOWNSHIP — Just over four years ago, former YSU athletic trainer and men’s basketball strength coach Todd Burkey was asked to mentor a young graduate assistant named Qian (pronounced Chen) Zhang from Beijing, in China.
Zhang was an ambitious international student who yearned to learn all he could about American life while helping an athletic program and its athletes.
Burkey never imagined that the friendship he developed with Zhang, along with his willingness to give his time away from the office so freely, would lead to his position as the team’s strength and conditioning coach. Chinese Women’s Hockey Olympics.
“I found myself in China by chance and I was so lucky”, Burkey told the Curbstone Coaches during Monday’s weekly lunch meeting at the Avion Banquet Center. “It comes from learning how to be good to people when you don’t have to for some conditional reason. I was given Qian as a GA for a mentor and never in my life did I realize that was going to change my life too.
“He struggled with our language and because of that barrier struggled at school so I took the time to help him with all of that, mostly beyond the classroom. of training. He then became a regular at my house, at my daughters’ sporting events, and even at our family functions, which we absolutely loved.
Burkey graduated from South Range High School in 1990, received his undergraduate degree from YSU (BS in Exercise Science) in 1994 and a Masters in Sports Science from Ashland University (2000), learning from an early age the importance of helping others when presented with the opportunity.
“Qian appreciated YSU and how I helped him along the way,” said Burkey. “He kept promising that he was going to take me to see China four years ago, he kept that promise. I visited China for three weeks, we traveled to the cities of his native country and he even arranged for me to teach and lecture. I worked with several Chinese Basketball Association players and other Olympians, returning a year later to do the same, this time for five weeks.
“This second trip, I was invited to speak to ABC medical professionals and worked in the office of a leading Chinese sports physician. In the fall of 2020, this same physician called me and offered me a job for their Winter Olympics, so I resigned from my job at YSU in October 2020. The global pandemic then hit, so I only left for China in June 2021. I always talked to Qian about the possibility of reimbursing, but he did his best to reimburse. He will never know how much I appreciated his kindness.
Accepting the job of working for the China Winter Sports Federation, especially its women’s hockey team, was exciting but also trepidating.
“My biggest fear going to China was not being able to be the person they wanted,” Burkey added. “They have a habit of firing people quickly and Qian was my only link. The least of my fears was being able to connect with them. I was assigned a translator but I really didn’t think it would matter because there is a sporting language that everyone can relate to. I had done it before and I don’t speak Chinese at all.
Burkey was so accepted by the organization and the players that they celebrated American traditions Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas the American way, just to make him feel like he was home.
“The Chinese women’s hockey team was a very special team” Burkey said. “They were willing to accept what I taught, were always very caring and wanted to learn English so badly. We weren’t supposed to be particularly good, but they stunned the opponents when we scored in our first game against the Czech Republic, which turned out to be their first international goal scored in 20 years.
“We beat Denmark, 3-1 in the second game, then in the third game we beat Japan in a shootout, 2-1. There were men, women and children crying in the stands after that game. We didn’t win a medal, but we achieved more than we expected, so for me it was a very rewarding experience.
His journey home was anything but a smooth transition home.
“My biggest fear leaving Beijing was, ‘How am I going to get home?’ because 48 hours before leaving, I had no itinerary”, Burkey noted. “There were no flights from China to the United States, so they wanted to send me through Moscow. It was at the height of tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
“I told them I couldn’t go to Moscow now, so they sent me through Switzerland with a travel time of almost 36 hours. I landed in Buffalo, my family picked me up, and I slept uninterrupted for over three days. After more than nine months of traveling, crossing time zones and cities and meeting people from different countries and languages, the house seemed strange to me. I found myself missing these people who treated me so well, almost as much as I did back then.
“I still keep in touch with my Chinese family because that’s what they had become. I was so lucky to have had the chance to be surrounded by so many great people.
The group will not meet next Monday due to the Memorial Day holiday, meeting again on June 6 when they honor YSU’s Horizon League women’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s tennis conference champions.