Gunawan, a former world and Olympic champ, coaches at San Gabriel Valley Badminton Club. He plans to compete at 2012 London Games; then, a more ambitious challenge: Coaching U.S. to world prominence.
The San Gabriel Valley Badminton Club was born eight months ago in a nondescript industrial park off the 57 Freeway in Pomona.
If you’re looking for fancy bells and whistles — or, for that matter, heat — this isn’t your place, with 19 simple badminton courts and a small, no-frills workout room packed into a chilly warehouse about the size of a hockey rink.
Yet Tony Gunawan, a former world and Olympic champion who has visited elaborate arenas all over the globe, can’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be. Next summer’s London Olympics mark what he promises will be the end of a long playing career, and the 36-year-old has a new muse — coaching the U.S. into a badminton power.
"This is what I want to do," says Gunawan, whose evening classes at the SGVBC draw players from all over Southern California. "The Olympics is one goal, of course; to represent the USA. But to . . . carry the players to a high level and competing internationally? It’s a different goal."
On a recent weekday evening all but two of the club’s rubber-floored courts are filled, most with college students and young professionals in their 20s and 30s. In his native Indonesia, where badminton is an obsession, Gunawan is recognized as one of the greatest doubles players of all time. But at the SGVBC, Gunawan can go about his work anonymously, fishing shuttlecocks out of a three-foot-high cardboard box and batting them over the net to a young student.
And it’s badminton’s invisible profile in the U.S., as much as anything else, that led Gunawan to leave Indonesia for California a decade ago. Winning a gold medal was nice and all, but if Gunawan could transform a backyard hobby like badminton into a serious sport here, that would be an accomplishment.
"The goal is not just teaching," he says. "The goal is to improve the level here. Make noise at the professional level."
Playing for Indonesia, Gunawan captured the 2000 Olympic doubles title before winning a world championship 11 months later with a different partner.
"Those two are the highest medals that I can achieve in badminton," says Gunawan, who was 26 then. "So I was thinking ‘OK, what next?’ I didn’t want to retire just like that."
So with the help of Don Chew, a self-made millionaire who founded the Orange County Badminton Club, Gunawan emigrated to the U.S. and became a coach.
"He said he was looking for a job. And I said, ‘I’m glad you’re looking for a job because I’m looking for a player like you to be a coach,’ " Chew says. "So I hired him."
It was the international badminton equivalent of going into the witness protection program. Imagine Derek Jeter leaving the Yankees at the peak of his career to go teach baseball to Little Leaguers in Indonesia.
"I was teaching 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds. Beginners," Gunawan remembers. "And when I first came [I spoke] no English. They started crying."
But what Gunawan couldn’t communicate he could demonstrate. So again with Chew’s backing, he returned to the court as a player, teaming first with Bob Malaythong to win three U.S. Open titles, then with Howard Bach to bring the U.S. its first world championship.
That move did more to raise the level of the game here than anything Gunawan has done since.
"It’s all theory until you put it into play," says Bach, a two-time Olympian. "For him to be able to show us point by point how it’s done . . . it’s like a muscle memory-type thing where you see it and you react."
Gunawan and Bach earned their latest title in October — a month after Gunawan was sworn in as a U.S. citizen — when they won gold at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, qualifying for the Olympics. But whether they go to London will be determined by what happens between now and the end of April.
In the latest world rankings Gunawan and Bach are listed 18th, leaving them with a Sisyphean challenge to reach the Olympic final. And if they’re not going to be contenders, both men say, they’d rather not go at all.
"We need better results and then we’ll see," Gunawan says. "For sure, we’ve qualified. But basically is the gold there or not?"
If not, Gunawan wants to make sure a medal is within reach of the U.S. before too long. Among the players he’s coaching now is Eva Lee, a Pan Am Games champion and former Olympian, and her doubles partner, Paula Lynn Obanana.
Yet the long-term success of the sport in this country could rest with one of the two dozen kids Gunawan tutors, some of whom are in grade school. And each of them is growing along with their coach.
"I’m kind of learning to be a coach. I need improvement," says Gunawan. "I need to remember to start over again. If I do this step, which is easy for me, it’s hard for them. So I have to really break it down from the start."
The most basic skill he wants to impart is a love of the game. That’s a marked departure from youth programs in Asia, where the talent is deep and the competition cutthroat.
"The No. 1 rule is you have to enjoy it," Gunawan says of the American approach. "If you hate it there’s no way you can be good at it. Some people see ‘this kid’s really talented, and this kid’s not.’ But for me, talented or not, it depends on how passionate you are.
"Anything that’s good for the kids is what we care about."
The caring doesn’t come cheap, with some families paying more than $400 a month for lessons. Yet few are complaining.
"He’s a great coach," says Li Chen, who, with 12-year-old daughter Maya, makes the two-hour round trip from Irvine four times a week.
Chen says Gunawan is "a treasure for U.S. badminton."
"He cares about all the kids," he says. "So kids like him."
Sitting across from Chen at a picnic table along the side of the court, Joe Hsu watches Gunawan work with his daughters Krista and Jamie. Behind them a college basketball game plays unnoticed on a flat-screen TV mounted to the wall.
"My kids love him. That’s the bottom line," Hsu says of Gunawan, who works with his children six days a week.
When the class breaks up the Chens and the Hsus pack away their rackets and gather up their homework and head off into the night as another student and her parents arrive to take their places.
Standing midcourt, Gunawan slaps shuttlecocks briskly over the net, sending a teenage girl darting from side to side. Her footwork is halting and her return shots loop far too high to be effective. Yet if this is the future of U.S. badminton, Gunawan will take it. Perhaps he’s not tilting at windmills after all.
"Some of them are pretty good," he says with a smile. "There is potential."