“If I Can Do That, I Can Do This:” Michelle Zhong on Art, Athletics, and Mental Work

By Rachael Jennings

Michelle Zhong would have described herself as “an artistic nerd” four years ago. Before she came to Dublin, that description seemed to fit. However, much has changed in Michelle’s time here.

“Right now, who am I? I am an athletic, artistic, friendly nerd,” she smiles. “Dublin is where I became myself.”

Michelle, who joined Dublin’s community from Beijing, and one of the most compelling reasons to choose Dublin, at the time, was the strong Art program. Michelle was really interested in drawing and painting, and she knew that, here, she would become a stronger, more practiced, and more creatively flexible artist.

What she didn’t know was how much the Art program would challenge her to experiment with new forms. When she arrived, she was quickly swept away by pottery. She found a new passion ignited, and it was one that complemented and complicated her previous artistic pursuits.

Michelle describes the feeling in saying, “You know when you paint something or draw something, you see a 3-dimensional object? You make it 2-dimensional and use lines and color to make it real. In ceramics, it’s slightly turned. You are working in the 3-D. Of course, I still love painting, but sophomore year, I was obsessed with ceramics. I worked four hours a day.”

Other than a strong art program, what mattered to Michelle in selecting a school was finding a small, close-knit community. She knew that that kind of community would help her develop language skills and adjust to the culture.

Yet, there was something else, too. In her words, “when [she] first visited Dublin, [she] saw the Nordic team training and thought, ‘This is a cool place. Everyone is so fit.’”

And then she talked to people, like Mrs. Imhoff, who she just knew were “so nice and kind.” Michelle remembers turning to Mrs. Imhoff and saying, “I feel like this is home.”

At first, Michelle admits, she wasn’t that driven. At first, she felt the challenging transition of athletic commitment at Dublin.

“I was forced to play soccer, run in cleats, play on the field. I was forced to snowboard. At that point, I could barely run a quarter of a mile. I was always the last one.”

That changed when Michelle found Crew.

“My crew coach pushed me to really do the hard work,” she describes. “And then, I started pushing myself and started to gain some medals with my boat. You start to see success, but it is also a lot of fun.”

Now, Michelle continues to be “an artistic nerd,” but she has also transformed into a top-notch athlete. Her career as an outstanding athlete began with the many things that she “had to do” with Dublin’s full schedule, but it became much more: it became a way of life.

After a coach encouraged Michelle to try Crew, she started to love it. She started to see success. Then, last March, she started playing around with the idea of rowing in college. When she floated the idea to her coach, her coach said, “Well, you have to work harder.”

Michelle Zhong second from stern

“So I did,” says Michelle.

It started with sticky notes.

“I had two piles of sticky notes with numbers,” says Michelle. “Usually the number was 7:30, which is a time required for rowing. It’s for the two kilometers rowing test. You see the sticky notes and you tear one off, and you see the number getting smaller and smaller. It’s motivational.”

“I knew that I wanted to go D1 for college,” she adds. “I saw my friend go to D1, and I thought, I can do this. I can chase her rowing time. Her time was 7:36. But my time was 8 minutes or so.”

Michelle persevered. She continued to work, and she worked hard. But that didn’t mean that the work felt like it was paying off.

“I asked myself a million times why I was doing this. Your muscles burn. You are sweating. You are exhausted,” she notes. “But I was kind of stubborn. My family told me, ‘Michelle, you aren’t athletic. You are an artist. Do art.’”

Even so, in her words, Michelle wanted to prove it to herself.

“The number kind of stuck there,” she says. “There’s a bottleneck. I felt stuck. I was upset. My goal was so clear, but I was still not there athletically. I cut soda and dessert. I ate a ton of salad with grilled chicken. I kept working harder. I went to a summer camp at St. Andrew’s with Zoe and thirty other really tough athletes were there, pushing each other."

Now, what’s Michelle’s time?

She clocks in at 7:32.

She notices a huge difference in her ability and power on the lake, too.

Michelle’s determination, creativity, and resilience translate to many pursuits at Dublin. She, as a senior, is working to build her portfolio and show work in the Putnam Gallery, as she and her peers did over Family Weekend.

“The part that is the same [as I was in China] is my big focus on academics and art, but now, there’s something else,” she says. “Athletics has taught me. When I talked to my coach about being a student athlete, I really just said the words. There wasn’t much confidence. People had told me that I could do whatever I want. But I didn’t really believe it. Now, I believe it.”

Part of her confidence and ability to believe her words, believe the part of her that exists and thrives that she would have never imagined before Dublin, comes from her failures along the way. Those failures, in fact, were crucial.

“There was a time that, during a 2K last year, I gave up halfway,” she says. “I was under a lot of pressure. We were submitting scores to coaches and colleges. I didn’t really know what to do, I just kept telling myself to work harder, but I went way too fast, and I couldn’t hold it. So, I gave up. I failed. When the other girls are done, my coach said, you can give it another try. But I had burnt out so much energy the first try.”

“Well, rowing is about a lot of mental work,” she continues. “And I tried. But, again, I got about five hundred meters in, and I threw my hands up. I was crying. I was saying I wanted to quit. It was really hard. For the next two weeks, I just avoided getting on the erg. It was a nightmare.”

And then, something changed. Michelle was told that there was another chance.

“I thought to myself, ‘I can do that. I can do this.’”

Michelle spent that night before her second chance researching. “I researched how to survive a 2K,” she laughs. “And I realized that I had all of the things that I needed. I just needed to tell myself: ‘I am strong, I am confident, I am tough. I can do this.’ I wrote those things on a piece of paper. I told the coxswain to yell those words at me.”

And you know what? The next day, her boat’s speed dropped twenty seconds.

“That started to apply to other challenges, tests, other hard work,” Michelle says. “I thought: If I can do that, I can do this.”

Recently, Michelle was reflecting on what she had learned at Dublin and talked to her mom about some of these transformations.

“I asked my mom, ‘could you [have] imagine[d] how much I would change, here?’ She said that she had imagined a career path: going to art school, maybe studying business. This was all based in some of my interests before Dublin,” Michelle explains.

“Well,” she continues, “my passion for art hasn’t changed. But right now, everything is so interesting to me. Everything. Not just one thing. Science, art. Athletics. I won’t compete my entire life, I know, but I will exercise, I will have the work ethic, I will work hard. For everything that interests me.”