Since her freshman season, Oakland Mills’ Zhenzhu Nelson has been one of the best outside hitters in Howard County.
Before opting out of the COVID-shortened spring 2021 season, Nelson was a first-team All-County selection in each of her first two seasons. As a sophomore, she led the county with 235 kills, and in her first two seasons, she totaled 359 digs, 101 aces and 58 blocks to go with 443 kills.
But Nelson, now a senior, is much more than just a volleyball player. She’s also a member of Oakland Mills’ wrestling and track teams, a former competitive pianist and a self-described “bookworm.”
Nelson recently had a conversation with reporter Jacob Meyer to discuss her volleyball career, her time as a pianist and more:
Q: When did you start playing volleyball, and what other sports did you play growing up?
A: I started playing in the middle of sixth grade. I did a bit of swimming when I was a kid, but I mostly played piano. Actually, me being an athlete surprised my parents. I was a total bookworm.
Tell me more about playing the piano. Do you still play?
I played competitively from fourth grade to ninth grade. I did competitions every year at the county, state and international level. It was great. I eventually performed at Carnegie Hall with my brother.
What was it like performing at Carnegie Hall?
It was amazing. … We were told that if we won this international duet competition with my older brother [Ming] that we’d perform in Carnegie Hall. We worked really hard on that piece, and we performed my freshman year. It was a dream that I didn’t even realize I had.
What are some differences and similarities between playing the piano competitively and playing volleyball?
In piano, you dedicate two to three hours every day practicing three to five pieces. I spent months practicing every day with only one or two performances. It’s very high pressure, no mistakes, and you really learn discipline. It teaches you precision and attention to detail. That did help me with volleyball. I didn’t immediately get good at volleyball. I had to focus on my technique and get lots and lots of reps when I first started playing for Maryland Juniors. But the biggest difference is that piano is very perfectionist, which is totally different than volleyball. Volleyball is about making mistakes and getting over it, while piano, it’s like one mistake and you’re done. In volleyball, every point, one side makes a mistake, and that’s the way it is. You can’t get hung up on it. You have to get over it and move quickly.
You said your parents were surprised when you were a good athlete. Why is that?
My brother was always the one who was athletic. He would go play with the neighborhood kids. I would do things at school, but I really was a bookworm. Like, reading “The Count of Monte Cristo” in sixth grade or finishing my homework in class so I could read my books when I got home. Actually, here’s a funny story about why I started playing volleyball. I wanted a dog so badly. My mom didn’t want to get me a dog. She gave me a list of reasons — the dog would bark and shed and all these different reasons. I went and did research and found the perfect dog and wrote the perfect essay about why we should get a dog. My mom looked at me and said “You know what, you’re starting volleyball. You need to be busy so you don’t have the time to write any more essays about why you need a dog.”
When you were a sophomore in 2019, Oakland Mills volleyball upset Glenelg in the playoffs. Is that one of your favorite memories from high school?
That was amazing. No one really expected much of us. Everyone has a stigma about Oakland Mills. ... But after we won the first set, we believed we could do it. I was incredulous when it finally happened. It was like Christmas morning. I remember club teammates texting me that night out of the blue about us beating Glenelg. That win rippled through the county, and that was such a memorable moment. We all came together as a team that day and everything clicked. Even though it wasn’t winning the state title, doing something no one thought we could do was awesome.
You joined the Oakland Mills wrestling team your sophomore year. Why did you do that?
I had recently quit piano. I felt like there was no way I could pursue piano wholeheartedly while also succeeding in high school. I quit because I didn’t want to do it halfheartedly. Then I had shin splints to start my sophomore year, so when I was sidelined from volleyball, I thought I wanted to try something new. The wrestling coach came up to me and asked me to wrestle. At first, I was like “Absolutely, no way.” My brother was a wrestler, and when I’d watch him I’d cringe. I couldn’t even watch. But coming to the end of the volleyball season some people told me that I couldn’t do it or I shouldn’t do it. So the day before wrestling started I decided to do it and I did it for me. I wanted to be stronger mentally and physically, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.
You must’ve been really busy. Wasn’t it difficult playing club volleyball and wrestling at the same time?
It was very difficult. Sometimes we had morning wrestling practice, afternoon wrestling practice. I’d barely get home in time to shower and change and then go to my two and a half hour volleyball practice. Then, I’d get home at 10:30 [p.m.]. And that year I was taking multiple AP [classes] and an extra class on the weekend. Sophomore year was very difficult with a lot of character building. But wrestling was great. I’ve heard stories from other female wrestlers where they felt like they didn’t belong or weren’t wanted, but the entire [Oakland Mills] team was so welcoming [of me].
You joined the track team this past spring as a jumper. What was that experience like?
I did track just because I had gotten out of shape. I hate running. I actually did OK. I got fifth in regionals in the long jump. Track really felt like a family. It was really difficult at first getting in shape. But after a few weeks I felt myself lingering after practice, not wanting to go home. Everyone was so encouraging.
You said earlier that Oakland Mills has an unfair “stigma.” What do you mean, and what has your experience been like at Oakland Mills?
Oakland Mills has been so amazing for me. People really have a bad image of Oakland Mills, but I’ve found so much support and so many opportunities to try new things. There are so many teachers or staff who will put in the extra work to help you. Too many people look at the stats at Oakland Mills and think it’s a bad school. Even I did, because I went to private middle school. All I heard about Oakland Mills were the rumors and the stigma and the stereotypes. Then I went there and found an amazing, welcoming culture. People need to know how great of a school it is.