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Jul 11, 2008

Five U.S. Olympians are searching for gold in a sport most Americans associate with burgers and barbeque.

By Amy Van Vechten

At 7 a.m., the rising sun casts a pink glow on the entrance to the Orange County Badminton Club in Orange, Calif. Inside, the American Olympic badminton team is already working up a sweat.

Raju Rai shoots hoops alone in the back corner of the enormous venue, running the court and dodging phantom obstacles. In the adjacent weight center, returning 2004 Olympian Howard Bach taunts Rai between bench presses. In the front of the gym, Mesinee “May” Mangkalakiri and Eva Lee hit a shuttlecock back and forth across a net. Khan “Bob” Malaythong takes off his Olympic jacket to join them.

Watch the American badminton team train to compete in Beijing in our short documentary movieFor these five athletes, their whole lives revolve around badminton. In preparation for the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing, they regularly train six hours a day, with a regimen that includes aerobic workouts, conditioning and weight training along with singles and doubles scrimmages. When not on the court, they consult sports psychologists to improve their mental game and follow strict diets to increase their stamina.

Internationally, many share their dedication. Badminton is the world’s second most popular sport after soccer, and the racket sport with the fastest traveling “ball.” Countries in which badminton is a cultural staple—such as China, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia—typically sweep the medals at the Olympics. Most Americans, however, think of the sport as recreation—a backyard game, played at barbeques and picnics.

The Man Behind the Team

Don Chew is trying to change that prevailing perception.

Originally born and raised in Thailand, Chew, 67, credits badminton with reforming his life.

“When I started competing, I stopped smoking and drinking and making trouble,” he says. “Then I came to America, and I used the discipline I learned from badminton and applied it to my work. That’s why I made it here.”

K & D Graphics—the small printing business that began in his garage—is now a veritable empire, grossing $11 million in sales this year and occupying a building that sprawls over 78,000 square feet on Orange’s North Main Street. Chew’s company prints everything from luxury cosmetics packaging to glossy Jenny Craig personal diet handbooks.

“Once I became a successful businessman, I wanted to give back to my adopted country and to the sport I loved,” Chew says. “I bought the rest of this land to make the badminton club. I want to get Americans the gold.”

When his 12-court Orange County Badminton Club opened in 1996, Chew’s goal seemed to be a long way away. But in 2001, when the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Facility removed badminton from its venue, professional players in the U.S. were left without a home base.

Chew’s private club filled that void, becoming an intensive training camp for badminton players with Olympic aspirations. When Rai moved to Orange from Colorado Springs, Colo., and Lee arrived from San Francisco, Calif., the team started to take shape.

Now, Chew’s dream is on the way to becoming a reality. This year’s Olympic games are the first in which the U.S. has qualified for all five badminton disciplines: men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles. And all five players come from the Orange County Badminton Club.

“Chew has been supporting us from the very beginning, sponsoring us to all our tournaments,” Mesinee “May” Mangkalakiri says. “Because of him and his family, we are able to qualify for the Olympics. We owe him a lot.”
In our interactive graphic, find out more about the five athletes that make up the U.S. Olympic badminton team.Competition

This year, 172 players from five continents will compete in badminton at the Olympics. The competion will be intense, and the United States has yet to win an Olympic medal in the sport.

“I’m going for the gold,” Howard Bach, the only returning Olympian on the team, says. “But it won’t be easy. The teams will all be competitive. Once you get to this level, you’re going to be playing someone hard.”

The team has only a few weeks left to prepare before flying to Beijing. Much of the training remains the same, but now it’s especially important for the athletes to work on the mental side of their game. Malaythong, Bach and Rai all see a sports psychologist once a week to help them focus on the task at hand.

“We have to get more mentally focused,” Malaythong says. “It’s important not to think about winning and losing, but to just play, and play our best.”

Eva Lee, the No. 1-ranked American woman badminton player and, at 21 years old, the youngest on the team, says she isn’t nervous.

“Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet.”

Her confidence is indicative of the attitude of the team as a whole. They are friends and teammates who challenge one another to work hard. It’s the love of the game that motivates them, not press or fame.

“It’s great to make history, but it’s also the journey that defines and molds our lives,” Bach says. “I’m just glad to have a shot in Beijing.”

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