A Three-Year Pursuit of Passion
Meet Simon (Class of 2022 / New Zealand). His portrait in the recently published high school yearbook is faithful to his character: a smile from ear to ear. But don’t mistake the smile for lack of seriousness because Simon is laser-focused in everything he does. He arrived in Grade 10 at UWC ISAK Japan with one undeniable passion: volleyball.
UWC ISAK sits at the foot of Mount Asama, but, except for Karuizawa’s Olympic-level curlers, we are far from the world of professional sports. So how did Simon grow from using broken Japanese to beg local High School teams for a chance to practice to joining Princeton’s Division 1 men’s volleyball team? It’s still a bit of a mystery to us, but we think leadership, resilience, and undoubted talent are at the core of Simon’s successes.
How it all started
Born to parents who immigrated from China to New Zealand in the nineties, Simon started playing volleyball in Grade 6 at a local school. It wasn’t his primary sport. He trained in soccer at first, a sport in which he didn’t qualify for a sports academic program. However, his mother used to play volleyball at university and encouraged him to try.
While in New Zealand, he dedicated as much time as possible to volleyball and saw some success, but at the time never dreamt of playing in college. “To be honest, nobody dreams of American Division 1 college teams in New Zealand. Or Japan, for that matter. Nobody does that.”
Growing his dream at UWC ISAK Japan
The dream built up after arriving at UWC ISAK Japan. “Ironically, if I didn’t come here, I would never have gone on to secure a Division 1 sports opportunity in the US,” recalls Simon. “It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. But UWC ISAK Japan opens you up not only to consider but also to pursue better opportunities.”
The irony stems from the fact that UWC ISAK isn’t known for its sports programs. In addition, the school isn’t formally registered in any sports leagues, so the opportunities to compete are entirely student-generated.
On the other hand, Japan has a relatively strong interest in volleyball, which meant that he could find teams with the potential to support his development. Still, he had a few significant hurdles without clear solutions: distance to the games and practice facilities and lack of Japanese language skills, which was the only language these teams used in most cases.
Simon was undeterred. During his three years at UWC ISAK Japan, Simon played with five local teams: two High Schools, two club teams, and one professional team. In addition, he trained almost every weekend and evening in Grades 10 and 11.
Throughout the long Karuizawa winter, Simon would cycle down treacherous hills to go to the local train station and take the 90-minute train ride to Nagano City for Wednesday professional training. It was always dark when he returned, where a teacher would pick him up at the local train station to bring him back to campus.
While the punishing schedule proved unsustainable, training with a professional team in Nagano helped him realize that he might have what it takes to continue his dream.
Perseverance and Resilience Personified
In the summer before Grade 11, just before his planned arrival on campus, Simon was offered an opportunity to participate in a New Zealand team trial event. The coach invited him to join the team in Australia for a big tournament. But then the Covid-19 pandemic intervened and seemingly stole Simon’s golden opportunity from his grasp. He felt powerless as he watched his teammates back home get selected while he had no way to demonstrate his skills and could only practice on his own.
Despite all the ups and downs, as Simon started thinking about university towards the end of Grade 11, he knew he wanted volleyball to be a part of it. Yet this proved extremely difficult as he had no official recognition whatsoever. It was hard to go to trials in Japan. He emailed 40+ schools and professional teams in university cities in the US. Most of them didn’t reply, but he received responses from Division 3 coaches, so he sent them videos of his progress, hoping they might see something they liked.
At this point, many people were telling Simon to give up, but he didn’t lose hope because he knew that if the soon-to-be high school senior had the chance to prove himself in front of the right people, he would deliver. That chance arrived during the summer break of 2021 when Simon went back to New Zealand. He participated in a top-level men’s league and began to build a library of clips to share with recruiters. “Other students have 1-2 years of footage. I only had one week”, recalls Simon.
Never giving up on his dream
Letter after letter, the disappointment mounted. A typical teen might have given up at this point, but Simon is not typical. During his three years at UWC ISAK, Simon has been a rock of positivity amid constant challenges and irregular events caused by the pandemic. He has convinced many of us that it isn’t blood running through his veins but sunshine.
So, despite the stack of letters piling up, Mr. Sunshine continued having as many conversations as possible with schools of interest. Finally, one of those conversations started to gain momentum—Princeton. But he’d have to get into the academic program first; surely, Princeton was beyond his reach. Or so he thought. Still, he completed the application and eagerly awaited the results announcement like tens of thousands of other hopefuls.
The day arrived. The stress and anticipation were crushing, but he prepared himself for the inevitable rejection … that never came. Simon kept rubbing his eyes to ensure they weren’t deceiving him because the acceptance list included his name. Princeton University, a Division 1 Ivy League school, had just admitted Simon. Not only was Simon admitted, but he was also offered a full academic scholarship!
Simon was humbled to be admitted to such a highly regarded school. At this point, a typical teen might have been satisfied, but Simon still held on to his dream of playing volleyball at high levels. So, he called up the coach and was flabbergasted to learn that their men’s volleyball program had a place for him on their Division 1 team.
“This was an unlikely journey. I felt like I had all odds stacked against me. But I am deeply grateful for all the UWC ISAK teachers who picked me up and odd hours and the local coaches who gave me a chance.”
Life after UWC ISAK Japan
At Princeton, Simon plans to major in Politics or Sociology with a minor in East Asian studies. He hopes to continue his Japanese studies, which, after five years of studies that began before his arrival and continued throughout his time at UWC ISAK, have reached an intermediate level.
Simon’s long love of Japan started long before he became a student at UWC ISAK Japan. During his time on campus, Simon’s CAS project and Extended Essay focused on fashion-related topics, and his passion for Japanese cars has only grown.
So, after three wonderful years with Mr. Sunshine as a student of UWC ISAK japan, we send him off to Princeton University to pursue his dreams. We know he will positively impact lives wherever he goes, and we can’t wait to see how he will live out the UWC ISAK Japan mission. Good luck, Simon, and remember, UWC ISAK Japan will always be your home.