For most Americans, badminton is a backyard game played at parties and barbecues. But for Eva Lee, it is very serious – she is one of five members of the U.S. Badminton team that will be competing for gold at the Beijing Olympics in August. VOA's David Byrd has this look at Eva Lee and her quest to become the first American woman to win Olympic gold in badminton.
Eva Lee started playing badminton when she was a child – her parents gave her a racket and told her to go hit in order to keep her out of trouble. Her family thought the sport would keep Eva and her childhood playmates busy, but they probably never dreamed what they meant as a distraction for a fidgety child would turn into a quest for Olympic gold.
This year, Lee's family will be watching as she competes for three medals in Beijing – in women's singles, women's doubles and mixed doubles.
Preparing for competition
Eva Lee told VOA Sports that the fast pace of badminton requires several different kinds of training, including strength, agility, and reaction training.
"We do long-distance running, sprints, weight training – light weights and heavy weights," she said. "And then we also have to do agility, and then sometimes we do cross-training, like playing soccer with our teammates or basketball and all sorts of things."
The arduous training is needed. In a single game of badminton at the elite level, athletes can run as many as two miles and have to respond in a split second to the flight of the shuttlecock.
Endurance is everything
Eva Lee says that the grueling pace takes its toll, even on the best players.
"There was once I came off a mixed [doubles] match, and the mixed match lasted about an hour," she said. "And after I came off the match, both my legs just collapsed, I could not stand any more."
Eva Lee's endurance will be tested in Beijing – she has qualified in three disciplines and will have to face top opponents from host country China and perennial power Indonesia to win gold.
She has faced many of her Olympic opponents on the world circuit before, including a loss to world number one Xie Xingfang of China at the Uber Cup earlier this year. China shut out the Americans, 5-0, in group play at the Uber Cup in Jakarta. Hong Kong later shut out the Americans in the knockout stage (3-0).
Grace under pressure
Eva Lee says that she knows the road to Olympic gold will not be easy, but she expects her opponents will have added pressure to perform, especially the Chinese team.
"Actually I do not think they will have any advantage," she said. "If anything, they will be at a disadvantage because the Chinese badminton fans have very high hopes for their players. And so I think there is a lot of pressure on their players."
Eva Lee is used to pressure – she has been with Team USA at the Thomas and Uber Cup, the Sudirman Cup mixed team championship and the China Open. She also captured three gold medals at last year's Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Lee won in women's singles, women's doubles with partner Mesinee "May" Mangkalakiri and in mixed doubles with Howard Bach.
Gearing up for Beijing
In Beijing, Bach will team with partner Khan "Bob" Malaythong in men's doubles and with Eva Lee in mixed doubles. U.S. Badminton Coach Cai Min Zi says that Eva Lee and May Mangkalakiri have some factors in their favor, but will have to be on their best game to win.
"Strong points: they have good skills and more experience," said Cai. "But weak points are their power – one of them has no smash power and we will try to get more improvement in their power."
The United States has never won an Olympic medal since badminton was made a medal sport in Barcelona in 1992. This year, Eva Lee and her teammates hope that they can find the right combination of speed, power, and good teamwork to bring home a medal from Beijing.