BEIJING — "Anna, Anna" they called out as they pushed to the first-row railing and thrust their admission tickets and pens into the mixed zone area of the Olympic badminton venue.
"Autograph, please. Autograph, please."
Canadian women's badminton champion Anna Rice, a North Vancouver native who now lives and trains in Copenhagen when not travelling the professional circuit, smiles at the group of a dozen shuttlecock fanatics and stops long enough to make a few of them happy.
Ninety-nine out of 100 Canada probably couldn't identify her. Perhaps, they might guess she's a mystery/crime writer.
Here, they know well the dark-haired, 27-year-old, who is still drenched with sweat 15 minutes after a long, physically-taxing opening-round match and trying to stretch her legs to keep from cramping up.
"In China," she says to a nearby reporter when asked if this happens often after her matches. "Not in North Vancouver." Rice, admittedly battling some Olympic nerves, fought back from three points down late in the third and deciding game today to beat Eva Lee of the U.S. 21-19.
Rice, ranked No. 28 in the world, says it's a little bit of an "ego trip" to play in front of fans in a country where the sport is so hugely popular.
"We dedicate our lives to a sport that really isn't well recognized in Canada and that's frustrating. But it really separates the half-hearted from the people who are really crazy about it like me. It's also nice to come here and be recognized and be respected for what you're really committing your life to." Badminton is being played in the spectacular new 7,500-seat Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium. It has a unique air-conditioning design which enables air to come out from outlets under the seat and helps ensure a minimal wind speed.
Badminton was one of the first sports to sell out for the Games and Rice admitted that several athletes were "startled" that the seating capacity around the three courts was below 8,000. The atmosphere was electric, however, as the sport, which features amazing athleticisim and often spectacular shots, drew raucous cheering, particularly for any athletes from Asian countries.
Lee, 22, won gold in singles, doubles and mixed doubles at the 2007 Pan Am Games, which Rice skipped. But neither the U.S., nor Canada has won an Olympic badminton medal since the sport debuted at Barcelona in 1992.
Rice, who beat Lee the previous two times they had met, won the opening game 21-15 before dropping the second 21-19.
"Maybe experience or heart, I don't know," she said of battling back to win the third game. "I lot of times it just comes down to luck. I felt the luck was with her, she had three that hit the tape and fell on my side. I was like OC'mon, give me something here.' And then she made a mistake at 19-all in the third and I capitalized on it for the next match point.
"I got the jitters out. I don't feel I showed my best level and that's what I'm excited and determined to do tomorrow." Rice will face Jeannine Cicognini of Switzerland in the round of 32.
Cicognini demolished Ana Moura of Portugal 21-9, 21-13 today.