Mai Thao grew to 5 feet this year. "I finally reached that height," the Clovis East High senior says. "I'm so excited."
Little things do that for The Bee's badminton Player of the Year.
"She's extraordinary, a bowl full of jelly," Timberwolves coach Janine Sodersten says of the athlete who went 17-3 while powering Clovis East to the Central Section team championship. "She's such an upbeat kid, the one that gets everybody motivated."
Thao was a positive figure all four years in the Timberwolves' badminton program. But there was a moment during her junior season when her continued play was in doubt.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Fresno Bee
Her mother, Ka Vue, was adamantly against Mai concentrating on anything outside of academics -- a common stance for Southeast Asian immigrants with children gravitating into the American education mainstream.
So a meeting was held involving mom, daughter, a brother, coach Sodersten and a school counselor.
And Thao broke down.
"To see her cry was the hardest thing I've ever seen," Sodersten says.
Thao adds: "I'm the youngest child and only daughter, so that puts me in a culture where I should be kept as close to home as possible. It was hard; there were a lot of tears and lonely nights.
"It affected me to a point where, mentally, I had some breakdowns. But, in the end, it was a motive and drive for me to kind of prove her wrong, to prove that I could actually do it and that it will benefit me in the future. And it definitely has."
The school's female athlete of the year, Thao will attend Cal on an academic scholarship worth more than $20,000.
About Mai Thao
Vitals: Clovis East, senior
She's qualified because: Closed a 17-3 season while going 3-0 in the Central Section team tournament, including wins over Bee All-Stars Alexis Gonzalez of Bullard and Chiara Nardocci of Clovis, as the Timberwolves captured their first title. This followed a Bee All-Star volleyball season.
She said it: "Mai had issues at home, but she excelled through those, and that's what separated her. She was able to fight through those problems to reach her dreams and aspirations." -- Timberwolves coach Janine Sodersten.