UBC's Ben Chow, 25, has reinvented himself both on the court and in the classroom with the Thunderbirds' volleyball team. (Richard Lam/UBC athletics)
Feature University Men's Volleyball

UBC’s Ben Chow: How degrees of difficulty helped the ‘Birds star return for a special finale

VANCOUVER — The best journeys are never scripted and always organic. 

They test mettle, and in the best instances, wind up revealing a level of poetic gleam only possible through the hard steps of revival and re-invention.

Yes, intangibles can only be described in the figurative sense, yet ask Ben Chow about the meaning of his renaissance, and the 25-year-old redshirt senior with the UBC Thunderbirds’ volleyball team could write a master’s thesis.

Surgery for a chronically-separated shoulder, then extended rehab for a dislocated ankle and a blown posterior cruciate ligament in his knee effectively forced him to limp away from the game for two seasons.

Yet seven years after he first came to the Point Grey campus as a 17-year-old freshman from Surrey’s Fleetwood Park Secondary, he is back. And the re-invention is indeed poetic.

Chow, who in the spring will don cap and gown for the second time on campus, adds a degree in computer science to the one he earned two years ago in kinesiology.

And perhaps most poetic of all?

As part of a directed study in his new major, the kid who was so injured over his first four seasons of play with the team, is now the young man developing a software system which, with collected data, will help minimize injuries and maximize performance.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity for me,” begins Chow, 25. “I get to come in and play my final year here, and all in one go, I get to finish my school and close all the chapters of my book at UBC. That’s really cool and I am so appreciative.”

UBC’s Ben Chow is moving from attack to libero to finish his ‘Birds career. (Bob Frid, UBC athletics)


Chow came to UBC as a kinesiology major, and while he battled injuries on the volleyball court, including the shoulder surgery which forced him to miss his entire second (2011-12) season, he also battled with his choice of academic direction.

“The end goal was to go into physiotherapy, but then in the end I wasn’t completely committed and I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do,” says Chow, who nonetheless graduated with his first degree after the 2014-15 school year.

The tech world was always something that interested him, and when UBC started a new, two-year degree-granting computer science program in 2015 for those who had already attained a degree from the school, Chow decided to jump in head first.

One year previous, Chow had not only injured the PCL in his knee early in the volleyball season, he suffered a dislocated ankle in the second set of the Canada West semifinals against the Alberta Golden Bears.

“It was not the best year for me health-wise,” Chow says. “After I injured my ankle, I went cold turkey and I didn’t touch a volleyball for a year. I think I realized that first year in computer science how much effort I had put into volleyball because I had some time to focus on my academics.”

Still, he couldn’t stay out of the gym and away from the teammates he had grown so close to over the years.

“School permitting I was there as often as I could be,” Chow says of watching games at War Gym. “I always thought that the option would be there to come back, so I had to make the conversation happen and (UBC head coach) Kerry (MacDonald) was very welcoming.”

UBC’s Ben Chow is bringing his analytical mind to the fore in helping men’s volleyball. (Bob Frid, UBC athletics)


The contrast in experience that Chow brings in his return to the UBC lineup is pronounced.

All of this season’s pure freshman, like phenom hitter Fynn McCarthy, were only in the sixth grade when he came to UBC as member of the 2010 freshman class.

“It was crazy,” Chow remembers of being thrust directly into action under former UBC head coach Richard Schick. “My first experience at UBC came in August and we went to Korea, and immediately I was in the starting lineup. It was a shock to me. I didn’t expect it.”

Now, perhaps in part as a treaty with his now-healthy body, Chow is switching from left side hitter to defence-only libero.

“He is learning how to play that position and he is learning how to make an impact,” says MacDonald, who not only has confidence in the positional switch, but in the intangibles Chow brings upon his return to the program.

“For us it’s the calm leadership,” MacDonald continues. “That maturity is welcomed. Ben had been through all of this before. None of this is new to him and we have to trust his great perspective.”

Of course, he is also supplying his analytical mind to making the program better.

MacDonald, through the use of portable load-monitor devices worn by players, measures among other things, the volume of jumping and the pain threshold each will experience during training sessions. In turn, that data is being translated by Chow into news his team can use.

“This is the best way I can think of to combine my two degrees,” says Chow. “My kin degree is so beneficial in knowing my body and how to live an active and fit lifestyle. And because the U Sports volleyball season is such a marathon, to be able to monitor each athlete’s load through the season with the goal of preventing injury and maximizing performance is very important. Wearable tech is exploding, so it’s cool to bridge the gap between these two fields which I have studied.”

And so for one final season, the stars will align for Ben Chow.

The dream would be to win a national championship, then take his two degrees off into the real world.

“Ideally, the end goal for me is to be working in a field that combines fitness and tech,” he says.

Unscripted and organic, his experiences have been the stuff that defines every great journey.

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