VANCOUVER — By all accounts, Maggie Li’s first attempt at trying to secure a roster spot on the UBC Thunderbirds volleyball team was like one of those tragic-comic auditions on American Idol.
Li, just 17 at the time and living in Charlottetown, showed up on the Point Grey campus for a try-out, fresh off an 8,500-km return flight from a family vacation in Beijing.
Shaky from her jet-lag, she went through her paces on the Point Grey campus as the athletic version of a tone-deaf singer, and to boot, had forgotten to bring her volleyball shoes.
UBC head coach Doug Reimer, who stood in judgement that day as the Simon Cowell of this tale, had just months earlier, led the team to the second of what would be six straight CIS national titles.
And when he didn’t see what he thought he should on the floor of War Memorial Gymnasium, he stopped the figurative music and sent her packing, not bothering to encourage her to come back and try again next year.
Well, just to prove that first impressions aren’t always the right ones, when the 20-4 Thunderbirds open the quarterfinal round of the Canada West playoffs Friday (6 p.m.) at home to Kamloops’ Thompson Rivers WolfPack, Reimer will do so with Li, a fourth-year transfer, now well-established in his rotation as 6-foot-1 middle blocker.
Li, after a circuitous career that saw her play three seasons in Halifax at Dalhousie, where she was named Atlantic University Sport’s women’s volleyball MVP in 2014, had found herself on a westward migration with her family, and spent last season working as a bank teller in Victoria.
When she reached out to Reimer, this time with a resume chock full of credentials, wondering if there might be a spot for her, the veteran coach wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.
“I didn’t take her then, and I was an idiot,” Reimer laughed at getting a second chance. “I guess I didn’t take into account the first time that she was really jet-lagged during that flight from China. And then when I saw her play at Dalhousie, I just went ‘Wow, did I ever make a mistake.’”
Li was born in Beijing, but moved with her family to Charlottetown in time for her to start ninth grade.
She wound up graduating from that city’s Colonel Gray High, but before she did, she began looking at places where she might be able to continue her studies while playing university volleyball.
“I had always just wanted to come to Vancouver, and UBC for me, was my dream school,” says Li, who in the summer before her Grade 12 year (2010) contacted Reimer about a try-out and figured that since she would be returning from a family vacation in China, that she would return home with a stop in Vancouver.
Showing up in a pair of running shoes to audition for the two-time defending national champs didn’t enhance the first impression, so she returned home, graduated from high school and became an integral part of the Dalhousie program, leading the conference in scoring in 2012-13.
Having a change of heart, she stepped away from the game the next season, but missed it so much that she contacted Reimer.
Although eligible to compete for UBC last season, she was unable to get the courses she wanted and thus relocated with her family, who had moved to Victoria.
“I worked as a teller at TD Bank, and I played a lot of rec volleyball, but UBC had always been that dream for me,” she says.
All the pieces fell into place for her to begin her career at UBC this season, and after two years away from the U Sports world, Reimer admits there was some rust to work off her game.
“Physically, she had missed a lot,” he says, “but she does so many things so well, so naturally. We had to be really conscious of her training load, but she has done very well.”
To get an idea of how much Reimer wanted to right his initial wrong from that first meeting over six years ago, he took Li on as a transfer student, something he has rarely done over his career at the helm of the program.
“Over the last 10 years, I would have to think about,” Reimer says when asked about how many transfers the program has had in the last decade. “Jamie Broder is one that comes to mind and that worked out pretty well. She’s an Olympian. But it doesn’t happen very often.”
Neither do try-outs as strange as the one Li had back in 2010.
Perhaps if things had been different that day, she’d have played in Vancouver her entire career.
“I lost out on my opportunity that day,” Li laughs, “but I don’t regret anything that has gotten me to be where I am today.”
That’s at UBC, her dream school, with the playoffs beginning, a chance to maybe win a national title and start another string of success, like the Thunderbirds teams she was almost a part of all those years ago.
(Game two of the series goes 5 p.m. Saturday with an if-neccessary game scheduled for Sunday (2 p.m.).)
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