No school, more tennis: What life has been like for one student-athlete who took the year off
If this was any normal year, Daniel Li would have been helping the Washington University men’s tennis team prepare for its early matches of the spring season this week. After three years with the team, Li was going to be a captain of the Bears this year, hoping to lead Wash. U. to yet another NCAA tournament appearance (they have not missed since 1999). The pandemic had other plans, however, as the men’s tennis team has not played a match since a March 11 loss to Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, and it is still unclear whether the Bears will be able to play in any competitions this spring. Last summer, Li chose to step back from school for the year. He told Student Life about his experience of the last few months in a December phone call.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student Life: You decided to take a gap year. What was the reasoning behind that decision?
Daniel Li: I did it for a few reasons. One, I would say, is to be able to play on the tennis team again for another year, just given the fact that COVID canceled our season. Last spring, the NCAA gave us another year of eligibility. So my thinking was, if I can play for another year and graduate in 2022 instead of 2021, why not do it? It’s not like I’m going to be playing tennis much after I graduate. I figured that college would probably be my last time playing competitive tennis, and I just wanted to maximize that, I guess. Another reason would be just that with COVID the job market right now isn’t great, so giving myself another year to try to get a summer internship and then recruit in a better recruiting season would give me more flexibility. Thirdly, I just wasn’t really in that much of a rush to graduate, I guess. I feel like having a watered-down semester with COVID and online classes and stuff wasn’t going to be as valuable as maybe working on something that I wanted to do or taking some time off and then going back to school for another full year.
SL: That’s interesting to hear. Now that you didn’t have to go to classes every day, how did you end up spending most of your time?
DL: One thing I’ve been doing is me and my buddy have been working on this project. We’re trying to develop an iOS game, you know, like agar.io, or skribbl.io. We’re trying to do one of those. It’s kind of like a music guessing game. So the premise would be like, you would log on to your Spotify account, and then you would be put in a room with all your friends and stuff and you would play a song, and then all your friends would try to guess who the artist is without seeing. So we’ll see how that goes. It’s still a work in progress. But that’s one thing that I’ve been doing. And then I’m at home right now in Seattle, just spending time with family over the holiday. But other than that, not too much. When we were at school, I was able to be with my teammates, and get closer together with them that way, but [there is] not too much going on.
SL: Let’s take a step back. I’m curious about how you got involved playing tennis and why you ended up here at Wash. U.
DL: Yeah, I was pretty much all over the place. I’m from Georgia, so tennis is really big there. I went to this big tennis academy growing up in middle school and high school. I grew up playing with a lot of really good kids who went on to a bunch of big D-I schools. We have a big [University of Georgia] pipeline and I would travel a lot for junior tournaments and stuff. So that was a lot of fun. I would say I was definitely looking for a good school. I think I was good enough to play at some Division I places. Probably not the ones I would have wanted. A few schools in the south were interested. But I wanted to go to a pretty good school. So that led me to a lot of the D-III schools. So that would be like Wash. U., Carnegie Mellon, MIT, that kind of thing. When I was visiting [here] I really liked the team at Wash. U. I definitely still wanted to play tennis in college. So Division III was probably a good bet, just given the fact that I could play on the team and then also get a good degree alongside that.
SL: Even though you’re taking a gap year, have you still been able to participate? Has the team itself even been practicing?
DL: Oh, yeah, they were towards the beginning of the fall. When the weather was nice and the COVID situation wasn’t that bad, we were able to do most of our practices, at least with our coach. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to participate because I wasn’t considered a full-time student. But it worked out. I think they did a good job. They took all kinds of precautions and did the different things that they needed to do like wearing their masks when they played, keeping their hygiene up and stuff like that. So I think it worked out, yeah.
SL: Have you still managed to stay involved even though you can’t officially practice?
DL: I would say I’m still pretty involved. I live with three other seniors. The guys I’m around are all on the tennis team. If I don’t see some of our newer teammates, they’ll tell me all about them. But I also get to see a lot of them too. I think our team does a good job of staying connected and doing a lot of Zoom calls together. And then, also, I’ve been able to practice with most of them. So that’s worked out pretty well. I’d say I know the freshmen pretty well. We have two guys who are at home, who spent the semester online. So I don’t really know how they play or anything like that, but neither does the rest of our team or even our coach. So that’ll be interesting to see in the spring if we do another season, but I think it’s not that big of a transition, just because in tennis, people don’t really affect other people in their matches. They’re all individual, you know, so it should be fun.
SL: Looking back, how do you feel about the decision you made to take a break? Do you feel like it was the right decision in retrospect?
DL: I think from my experience, everyone who I’ve talked to, I’ve told them that I’m taking this gap semester, they’ve been like, “Yeah, man, that’s like a great idea. Like, that’s good. Props to you. Like, that’s really smart.” So at the beginning, I was super nervous about it. Like, this could be a terrible idea. But I mean, so far, it’s been solid, no real complaints. It does get a little boring. I would string rackets for a bunch of my teammates to make some money. And also, there are some local St. Louis kids that I would give tennis lessons to every now and then. It’s kind of hard to do with COVID. But I mean, I did. I made a little bit of money, but I never really had a real part time job. People aren’t gonna judge you for not doing anything, especially in this time. I think it’s totally okay to just like, take a break. Because that was another reason. I was just thinking a lot and school and tennis can get pretty stressful to balance sometimes. I was like, man, if I could just take the school out of my life for like four months, then that would be nice. It’s been pretty good.
SEE OTHER RECENT ATHLETE OF THE WEEK FEATURES: