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Former YSU trainer details Olympic journey

BEAVER TOWNSHIP — A little 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, China.

Zhang was an ambitious, international student who yearned to learn all that 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 so freely of his time away from the office, would lead to his position as strength and conditioning coach of the Chinese women’s Olympic hockey team.

“I ended up in China by chance and was I ever so lucky,” Burkey told the Curbstone Coaches during Monday’s weekly luncheon meeting at Avion Banquet Center. “It came from learning how to be good to people when you do not have to do so for some conditional reason. I was given Qian as a GA to mentor and never for the life of me did I ever realize that he was going to change my life, too.

“He struggled with our language and because of that barrier, struggled in school so I took the time to help him with all of that, most of the time beyond the training room. He then became a regular fixture at my house, my daughters’ sporting events and even our family functions, which we absolutely loved.”

Burkey is a 1990 graduate of South Range High School, earned his undergraduate degree from YSU (BS in Exercise Science) in 1994 and Masters in Sports Science from Ashland University (2000), learning at an early age the importance of helping others when presented the opportunity.

“Qian appreciated YSU and how I helped him along the way,” Burkey said. “He kept promising that he was going to bring me to see China then four years ago delivered on that promise. I visited China for three weeks, we traveled around cities in his homeland 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 thing, this time for five weeks.

“That second trip, I was invited to speak to CBA medical professionals and worked in the practice of a top Chinese sports doctor. In the fall of 2020, that same doctor called and offered me a job for their Winter Olympics so I resigned my position at YSU in October of 2020. The Global pandemic then hit so I did not leave for China until June of 2021. I always talked to Qian about paying forward but he went out of his way to pay back. He will never know how much I appreciated his graciousness.”

Accepting the position to work for the Chinese Winter Sports Federation, especially its women’s hockey team, was exciting but carried apprehension.

“My biggest fear going to China was that I wouldn’t be able to be the person they wanted,” Burkey added. “They have a history of quickly firing people and Qian was my only connection. Least of my fears was being able to connect with them. I was assigned a translator but really didn’t think that would matter because there is an athletic language everyone can relate to. I had done that before and am not fluent at all in Chinese.”

So accepted was Burkey by the organization and players that they celebrated American traditions Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas American-style, just to make him feel like he was at home.

“The Chinese women’s hockey team was a very special squad,” Burkey stated. “They had a willingness to accept what I was teaching, were ever so caring and wanted so badly to learn English. We were not supposed to be particularly good but they surprised the naysayers as we scored a goal in our first game against the Czech Republic, which turned out being their first international goal scored in 20 years.

“We beat Denmark, 3-1 in the second game then in the third game beat Japan in a shootout, 2-1. There were men, women and children crying in the stands after that game. We didn’t medal but achieved more than most expected so in my eyes it was a very gratifying experience.”

His return trip was anything but a smooth transition home.

“My biggest fear leaving Beijing was, ‘How am I getting home?’ because 48 hours prior to 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. That was at the height of tensions between Russia and the Ukraine.

“I told them I cannot go to Moscow now so they sent me through Switzerland with my travel time home nearly 36 hours. I landed in Buffalo, my family picked me up and I proceeded to sleep continuously for over three days. After over nine months of travel, crossing time zones and cities and meeting people of different countries and languages, home felt strange. I found myself missing those people that treated me so well, almost as much as I missed home back then.

“I still stay in contact with my Chinese family because that is what they had become. I was so fortunate to have had the chance to be around so many great people.”

The group will not meet next Monday due to the Memorial Day Holiday, reconvening on June 6 when they honor YSU’s Horizon League women’s lacrosse, and men’s and women’s tennis conference champions.

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