When senior Steffi Wong was four years old, a neighbor found her wandering down the road near her home in rural Canada. Wong’s mother, Lily, said she came home to find the house quiet and the children supposedly napping.
“And then the doorbell rings and my neighbor comes up and asks me, ‘Does your daughter have pigtails?’” she said.
On that particular day, the young Wong woke up from her nap and decided to explore. Unbeknownst to her grandmother and nanny, she climbed out of the crib, opened the garage door and started wandering the neighborhood in shorts and bare feet.
Eighteen years later, she may have lost the pigtails, but Wong is still independent. When she decided to come to Cal Poly, the school was about as far as she could get from her home. Now, as a senior, she’s helped her team earn a No. 58 national ranking and a 13-5 record, while also graduating with a biomedical engineering degree this spring.
“I think I try to challenge myself as much as possible,” Wong said. “Because I think it will help me grow.”
She added this is one of the reasons she moved all the way to California, didn’t quit her difficult major and stuck with tennis.
The sport has been a part of her life since before she could walk. Wong’s mother said she and her husband, who met in dental school, both play tennis. But in Canada, public tennis courts are almost impossible to find. So when Wong was a baby, her parents built their own.
“The kids had a tennis court in our backyard to play on,” Lily Wong said. “Steffi learned to walk there. She learned to do a lot of things there.”
And ultimately, Wong learned not only to play tennis, but to play it well. When she was about 10 years old, she caught the attention of Canadian coach Casey Curtis.
“She was willing to work really hard, because at the time there was a coach that was willing to take her on,” Lily Wong said. “But he wouldn’t just take anyone.”
Even at that young age, Wong showed a propensity for the game. But in order to pursue it, she had to sacrifice a lot. For example, in high school, Wong would go to bed at 9 on Friday nights before tournaments. She attended a private Anglican school and initially played volleyball, soccer and other sports with her friends. But as a junior, Wong decided to pursue no other sport but tennis. She also spread her high school career out to five years. She’d leave class around 1:30 every day to go practice tennis for three to four hours.
That same discipline has carried over to her work at Cal Poly. While balancing the demands of intercollegiate sports and maintaining a 3.8 cumulative grade point average might seem overwhelming for some students, Wong seems to take it in stride. At the very least, she does not complain about it.
“Sometimes she’s come to practice and you can tell she’s a little worn around the edges,” head coach Hugh Bream said. “But she never once complained or used that as an excuse.”
Wong said, while she does get tired sometimes, she doesn’t regret her major.
“I think it challenged me for the last four years a lot,” she said.
According to history freshman and Wong’s doubles partner, Alexa Lee, Wong’s success in both school and athletics is unusual.
“I know that when her professors find out that she’s an athlete, they are amazed at how well she does on and off the court, because biomedical engineering takes up so many hours,” Lee said. “The College of Engineering is one of the most competitive at Cal Poly.”
Wong explained that she likes setting challenges for herself.
“Obviously it’s a tough major, but I just had to stick it through,” Wong said. “And that’s just helped me with life in general. There’s always going to be things you don’t want to do.”
That isn’t to say that it’s always easy for her, either. Wong said, while she used to drink black tea a lot, lately she’s come to appreciate something with a little more caffeine.
“First thing I do (in the morning) is turn on my coffee-maker,” Wong said. “I guess I’m addicted. I try to get the Costco brand because I drink so much of it.”
Despite a busy schedule, Wong does take time off to hang out with friends or sometimes even watch a little television.
Wong added she also likes watching sports like basketball and, of course, tennis. As for post-graduation plans, Wong said she’s a little nervous.
“I’m not sure what I want to do afterwards, if I keep going to more school or look for a job,” she said. “Hopefully, this summer I can figure it out. I think I’m going to stop tennis for a little bit just to figure everything out.”