Before and after Yirong “Rose” Bi arrived to the United States from Hangzhou, China — with little to no experience speaking English — she has overcome many difficulties.
First was a surgery in 2014 that took her out of the pool for four months. More recently was a 10-page English paper due right before the Big Ten Championships. She believes that these experiences have helped her develop faith in herself.
Determination, it seems, runs through her veins. Bi recalled the story of her father, who was born into a large family that was very poor. He was able to secure a good education due to his hard work and ultimately started his own business. Around the time Bi was 5, her father’s company fell apart, but he was persistent in his work to improve the situation. Now, his company is a sponsor for next year’s World Cup.
“He’s a really strong man,” Bi said. “I want to be strong like him, to be able to overcome anything and be a strong woman.”
Since then, she’s conquered those obstacles and more. In her first two years on the No. 6 Michigan women’s swimming and diving team, Bi has made quite the impression.
Winning two NCAA All-American honors in the 500-yard freestyle and 1,650-yard freestyle her freshman year, and boasting a GPA over 3.7, she was awarded the College Swim Coaches Association of America Scholar All-American. So far this season she has been named Big Ten Swimmer of the Week and has competed in the USA College Challenge — a meet pitting college athletes against professionals.
Even more impressive than that is when Bi arrived from Hangzhou, China, she spoke very little English.
Bi took her first steps on American soil walking into her freshman year at Michigan. She faced a steep adjustment to a new culture, language and classroom setting, having been homeschooled all throughout high school so she could attend a swimming academy. This transition has been difficult, but Bi was ready for a change and undeterred by the challenge.
“I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t expect it to be that hard,” Bi said. “I knew that Michigan has a really good swim team, and I wanted to improve my swimming. I wanted to learn something real … and I was really excited to be in class, to have classmates around you and have that atmosphere.”
Working with a tutor and speaking English every day are the two key aspects she attributes to her improvement. However, the language barrier is one Bi is still working to overcome.
“Communication has been a major challenge,” Bi said. “Sometimes I don’t know how to express myself to others, especially with classes. In class, I’m too shy to ask questions, but I go to office hours as much as I can. So, private situations make me feel comfortable to talk about what I’m struggling with.”
Bi also benefits from her relationship with her new teammates, who have been major sources of support. This has been another cultural shift for her, as back in China, swimming was more individually focused.
“When you’re tired, you have your teammates around you when you need them,” Bi said. “Even if you don’t say, ‘I had a bad day,’ they ask you and talk to you and make you feel much better. … You just challenge yourself because you do it for your teammates and for the team.”
Despite the difficulties she has faced, Bi is proud of what she has accomplished so far and is hungry to achieve more. The friends she has made and the opportunities she has enjoyed have made her journey away from China more than worthwhile.
“This was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” Bi said. “And it’s totally worth it.”