China’s Grassroots Lacrosse Charges On World Stage

2019 World Under-19 Women’s Lacrosse Championship, first match between China and Jamaica (source: twitter)

When Queena Yuan touched a 40-inch rod with a net on one of its ends in 2015, she had no clue what the name of her sport – lacrosse – was in Chinese. Little did she know that touch could one day lead her to compete for Team China on the world stage. On August 1st, China marked its debut at the World Under-19 Women’s Lacrosse Championship in Peterborough, Canada, dominating Jamaica by 18-5. Yuan scored twice.

“Playing for Team China sounds distinctive. It’s not like mediocre teams dawdling around,” said Yuan. Her pride resonates with her Chinese-born teammates, and so does her persistence in treating a sport that is still underdeveloped in China seriously.

At Yuan’s first drill, the speed and the agility of the game mesmerized her. She ended up putting lacrosse over other varsity sports. In her spare time, she lifted weights in the gym, honed her stick skills and practiced wall ball bounce-backs. In her junior year of high school, coursework and the pressure of getting into college were piling up, but she kept striding on her unconventional lacrosse lane. Her determination impressed her teammates and coaches. They voted Yuan as the captain of the lacrosse varsity team. But then her parents came in her way.

Yuan’s attempts to explain the sport she was obsessed with to her parents over the phone was unsuccessful. Eventually, she showed them a video of her playing on the field. Her mom thought the sport was taking up too much time and urged Yuan to devote herself to studies. But living abroad, Yuan, a top student who got accepted to Boston University, didn’t obey. She followed her passion for lacrosse. During a vacation after she finished her eleventh grade, her passion landed her at a scrimmage between Chinese men’s national team and a Shanghai local team. The simulated game convinced her that lacrosse did exist in China. That was her first interaction with China Lacrosse Association, China’s grassroots-level operational body recognized by World Lacrosse, the international governing entity of the sport (formerly the Federation of International Lacrosse) in 2012.

“The players said they had to set up the nets themselves on the field for each practice. And due to the sport’s minuscule popularity in China, gathering people for a match was harder than climbing up the sky,” Yuan said of her fellow lacrosse lovers in China. Six players on the national youth team have picked up lacrosse in China. They all have a lacrosse experience of fewer than two years.

According to lacrosse enthusiasts in China, only less than 500 Chinese nationals play the game. However, it was a great leap from seven years ago, when China Lacrosse became a member of World Lacrosse. Around 200 people were playing at that time.

“When people saw you practice years ago, they would ask: ‘are you catching fish or butterflies?’” recalled Ariel Luo, a 29-year-old veteran lacrosse player and one of the founding members of China Lacrosse. She works as a human resource manager in a French fashion design company in Shanghai while her after-work hours are occupied with lacrosse promotion in China. She said the sport was gaining popularity over the years and noted that big cities like Beijing and Shanghai now have local leagues. However, forming a national youth team and sending it abroad for competitions is not easy for China Lacrosse, which is basically run by less than a dozen passionate lacrosse fanatics in China. Lacrosse is not an Olympic event so it’s not likely that China’s official sports administration will invest heavily in the sport. Under China’s tightening NGO regulations, China Lacrosse cannot register in China even in its seventh year. Its status hampers the groups ability to support teams financially and host domestic tournaments.

To cover a sliver of training and travel fees for the young hopefuls, China Lacrosse put up a crowdfunding GoFundMe page on the internet. But that’s far from enough. Players still need to pay for flights and hotels on their own. Ultimately, the youth team’s first appearance wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance from voluntary foreign coaches and non-passport-holder players on the team.

To promote the sport globally, World Lacrosse allows Under-19 national teams to recruit players who are non-passport holders but have heritage of those countries within two generations. Non-passport holders cannot take up more than 15 percent of the roster.

“It’s incredible that you are not only getting to represent the US but are able to represent your heritage, the Chinese background,” said Sandy Edwards, a defensive midfielder on the youth national team. She was already admitted to the Central Michigan University lacrosse team, an NCAA Division I team in her junior year in high school. She looks more like her Italian father while being a quarter Chinese. In 1948, Edwards’s grandfather boarded a ship from Hong Kong to San Francisco after the Communists had taken over her home province. The ship ticket of the 89-year-old is proof for her eligibility to play for the team. She cannot forget how her playing for China made the octogenarian smile. Her nine years of lacrosse experience will boost the team’s performance and, beyond the field, spread her advanced training techniques and scoring strategies to grassroots Chinese players. “We might not be the most experienced team but just spreading the sport in China among the girls is really awesome,” added Edwards.

Lacrosse has been granted three years of “provisional recognition” by the International Olympic Committee. Given the sport’s impact in North America and its growing popularity around the world, lacrosse’s push to enter the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles is promising. In this respect, China’s sports administration had better invest in the sport sooner than later to ensure a robust future Olympic performance. Grassroots love of sports, foreign assistance, increasing public awareness – up until this point China’s lacrosse has been paving its way to a global level without any state backing or public attention.

Having crushed Jamaica, the Chinese team will play Germany, Korea and Kenya in group matches. They are likely to try against lacrosse powerhouses like the United States and Canada if they advance to the second stage.