Bonnie Zhang

Bonnie Zhang is the third JMU swimmer ever to qualify for the Swimming & Diving National Championships.

Junior freestyler Bonnie Zhang became the third swimmer in JMU history to be selected for the NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving National Championships. Not only does this place her in an exalted pantheon of Dukes swimmers, but it also reflects her position as one of the nation’s best athletes.

The junior joins exclusive company, as she’s one of only 26 swimmers from a mid-major school to receive an invite to the meet. Zhang began swimming at age three, traveling to the U.S. from Canberra, Australia. Now, her hard work is being rewarded.

When the Australian first garnered JMU coaching staff’s attention, her athletic abilities were obvious. She was brimming with potential and head coach Dane Pedersen immediately knew she was worth recruiting.

“She glides on top of the water very, very high,” Pedersen said. “She has great, great body position, and she has a very high intelligence level of her body position and feel of the water . . .  And it’s not necessarily a conscious decision. Each individual stroke that she takes is from years and years of practice, and it’s become second nature.”

However, as contradictory as it may seem, inclination doesn’t ensure ability. Having talent isn’t the same as having skill.

Zhang has put in the time and the effort, but it hasn’t always been easy. Traveling across the world to a foreign country presented challenges like learning and living at a foreign university amid an alien culture. But, Zhang was familiar with adversity before dealing with that.

“There was a period of time when I was 16, 17, and everyone was quitting the sport because it was hard to balance school and swimming,” Zhang said. “A lot of people at that age had dropped out of the sport. I was the only one that would be at practice. There was me and maybe three or four others that were 11, 12, so no one near my age. I just remember before practice I would be crying because I didn’t want to go.”

Despite feelings of loneliness, Zhang persevered. A frank discussion with her mother, her biggest supporter alongside her father, helped reaffirm her love for swimming. Her parents reminded her that she was good at it and that if she decided to stick with the sport, she’d have the chance to do something special. Yet, new challenges appeared. Severe performance anxiety is something the junior has struggled with for a long time, and it hasn’t lessened.

“She puts a lot of pressure on herself,” sophomore backstroke swimmer Paige Assaid said. “She amazes everyone day in and day out, and a lot of the time, she doesn’t see that. I think the team as a whole and Dane do a good job of keeping her confidence up.”

When one challenge ends, another takes its place. There’s always some nagging issue or obstacle in one’s path. No one is immune to it — not even star athletes like Zhang.

Despite all the challenges she’s faced, Zhang, in the 2018-19 season alone, has been named CAA Swimmer of the Week four times; earned a B time and first-place finish at the CAAs in the 100-m freestyle, breaking the school record with a 49.54; set a CAA all-time record in the same event with a 48.47 in the UNC Last Chance Meet; and was a part of the 400-m freestyle relay that won first place at the CAAs.

The Australian swimmer has shown everyone that life’s obstacles aren’t insurmountable. Instead, they can be the garnish that makes victories even more rewarding.

Contact Michael Turner at For more swimming and diving coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

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