San Francisco native and Olympian brings badminton up to speed
This piece was produced Gabriel Chen, one of our high school student summer interns.
With the Olympics taking place right now, U.S. sports fans are getting treated to lots of coverage of summer sports like basketball, swimming, and gymnastics. But one sport may be overlooked by many Americans: Badminton.
The U.S. hasn’t won a single badminton medal since it became an official Olympic sport in 1992. But one local athlete tried in 2004, 2008 and 2012 to win for team U.S.A..
The Synergy badminton club in Menlo Park is huge - big enough to fit over 10 badminton courts, each with glistening, green floors and bright, white lines. Over 20 different national flags are pinned along a wall, and in the center is a white banner bearing the iconic Olympic rings and three red letters: “U.S.A.” Playing a game of doubles on one of the courts is someone who has proudly represented this flag over the past 12 years.
“My name is Howard Bach and I’m a three-time Olympian for the sport of badminton.”
With a group of friends, Bach is playing a practice game of doubles.
“It's rally scoring," Bach explains. "So whoever wins a rally will score, and you play up to 21 points.”
The racket looks similar to the one used in tennis, but with a smaller racket-face and a longer shaft. You use the racket to hit the birdie -- which is shaped like a cone and covered with feathers.
“There are five basic shots in the badminton," Bach tells me. "Clear, drop, drive, net spin, and smash.”
The smash is the most powerful and explosive shot in badminton. These shots can go very fast.
“You know how fast NASCAR travels right?" Bach asks. "180 to about 220. So faster than the speed of a NASCAR.”
As Bach plays the practice match, his team and the other team are neck and neck. After he scores with one powerful smash, the other team comes back with their own smash on the next point.
At the Olympics
“I grew up in San Francisco and started playing badminton when I was 5," Bach recounts. "My dad got me started playing badminton at a local YMCA, so at the age of 16 I had the opportunity to move to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.”
He went to Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008, and London in 2012.
“It's definitely a feeling like no other," Bach tells me. "You have about a hundred thousand people and they're all cheering.”
In Bach’s practice game, his team leads only by a little. The score is 10-7. The four of them are yelling, laughing, jumping, and smashing.
It may seem like it’s easy for him now, but this took literally thousands of hours of training. And even though badminton is an Olympic event, people still have large misconceptions about the sport.
“Badminton in the U.S. is perceived more as a backyard sport. Backyard, cookout, holding a beer in your left hand. Just kinda swinging it like you're swatting a fly." Bach says."Actually, badminton is the exact opposite. Just to be able to be a quick runner is not enough, you gotta be explosive. It's the fastest racket sport in the whole entire U.S.”
Bach’s team pulls ahead just by a couple points. The score is 18 to 14 - he’s just three points away from victory.
Not like China
Clearly, badminton is not as easy as some Americans think. But it’s a different story in China, where people are constantly exposed to it.
“It's actually one of their mainstream sports in China. So they would live-broadcast badminton as if they were to broadcast NBA basketball in the U.S.” says Bach.
Countries in Asia and Europe even broadcast badminton ads.
“It's not like where you're in China and parts of Europe like Scandinavia and Denmark where the government or other private sponsors is a huge part of the establishment,” says Bach.
Online, I could only find one clip of Bach’s championship game - in Dutch.
The next generation of players
When he first started playing in the Bay Area, Bach had no place to train full-time; he had to move to Colorado.
“Back then, there was not even one private club," Bach says. "Fast forward 20 years, we have roughly 15 to 20 private clubs.”
More and more clubs are popping up around the U.S., from Florida to Seattle. This Bay Area center actually features four coaches who went to the Olympics. They’re all working to train the next generation of badminton players.
“My motivation and goal is to make Synergy badminton club the Harvard of badminton around the Bay Area and hopefully in the U.S.,” Bach says.
Only one of the seven players on this year’s U.S. Olympic team is a veteran. And as Bach transitions from being a player to a coach, he passes on the Olympic torch to this fresh young team.
"I always tell them, hey look, try not to be like Howard Bach. Try to be better than him," he says. "Try to accomplish more than what he accomplished. That's the ultimate challenge that I would like to give to all the seven soon-to-be Olympians.”
And with a final smash from Bach, his team wins their practice game.
So when badminton is on TV during the Olympics, make sure you check it out, and be sure to root for Team USA.