Soumya Gade was just 7 years old when she started hitting a badminton shuttle back and forth as a fun game at home, using furniture instead of court lines. Her father, Rajendar Gade, who played in his native India, helped Soumya hone her overhead shot technique by "hitting the fan," she says, "meaning I would simulate the action and try to extend my arm high enough to reach the ceiling fan."
The walls took a beating. "Our living room had a high ceiling so we could hit the shuttle pretty high up, but our rackets often hit the wall behind us when we were rallying, and a bunch of black gashes accumulated on the walls over time," says Soumya, now 15. "My mom always asked us to stop but we kept going and it ended up becoming one of the favorite parts of my day."
The game in the living room eventually transformed into real training. At age 10, after a couple of years of training, Soumya entered the 2008 Junior Nationals in Boston. She placed third in Under 11 singles.
Soumya now trains several days a week at Badminton NC, which opened last June in Morrisville. Dennis and Mette Broch Christensen moved from Denmark to open the club, with Paul Knechtel and Lisa Ward Knechtel, longtime Triangle badminton coaches and master's-level medalists.
Badminton NC is the Triangle's first badminton facility, outfitted with seven Olympic quality matted courts, high-contrast walls (to help the eye follow the shuttle), off-court lighting and controlled airflow.
It is where Christensen, a former national coach in Sweden, Switzerland and Italy, hopes he and the club will nurture a local Olympian, as he did in Europe. That player could be Soumya.
"My ultimate dream is to win gold at the Olympics in women's singles," Soumya says, "but I know that this is a very difficult task. Regardless, every time I step on the court I always give my best effort."
Christensen's initial strategy for training juniors is to make it fun, as Soumya's dad did. "If you can get them hooked, then you have someone like Soumya who wants to train for the competition and for herself," Christensen says. "Sometimes when a player is 16 or 17, the coach will see the gem and tell them to put it all in and train to become a professional."
In most countries where badminton is played professionally, this is funded by a national training program; the U.S. does not currently have one.
While more than 1.1 billion people world wide watched badminton's Olympic debut in 1996, competitive badminton is still a fledgling sport in the U.S. Badminton has gained traction in areas with large Asian populations, including the Triangle. The sport also has strong followings in Denmark, India and the UK. Many immigrants to the U.S., such as Christensen, bring a love of the sport with them.
Last June, Mie Falkenberg and Rasmus Holmgaard moved from Denmark to Morrisville to train with Christensen. Both had encountered him as a coach in Denmark and wanted to continue training with him in North Carolina in hopes of becoming top-ranked players.
Holmgaard draws from Christensen's insights on the technical and strategic aspects of the game, while Falkenberg says she is focusing more "on the tactical and mental part of the game so I stay positive [through the ups and downs of a match]. One of the marked elements of the sport is how quickly point exchanges and runs take place."
There are challenges to developing badminton's commercial viability in the U.S. Most people only know it as a game played in the back yard during family gatherings. And despite the large Olympic viewership, the small shuttle and rapid-fire rallies can be difficult to follow in stadiums or on TV. Yet Christensen is optimistic, especially about badminton's prospects in the Triangle, where local clubs could work more closely with university programs at Duke, UNC and N.C. State.
Also, school programs could expose young kids to badminton, and offer it as an alternative to traditional sports.
"Most of the people I have met think badminton is a backyard game," Soumya says, "but as soon as I show them a video of Lee Chong Wei [a Malaysian-Chinese player and two-time Olympic medalist, once ranked first in the world for 199 consecutive weeks] playing, their whole perception is altered and they get really excited about it. Similarly when I go to tournaments, many, like the Boston Open at MIT, happen in colleges and a lot of students come around to check it out and they get interested when they see us playing. Badminton is such a visually dynamic and fast sport that it's hard to not get captivated when watching it played in the right way."
Christensen calls himself an "elite idiot," his happy prankster way of saying that he is always scheming to spot and support young talent to develop into elite players. A current prospect is a 9-year-old boy, who has been playing for less than six weeks. "He's already beating the guys who are 13 and 14 and getting really into it," Christensen says. "Last week his parents came down and said he has been telling them that he wants to be a 'Dennis.' I know what he means and that feeling, having somebody fall in love with the sport, that is what I am living for."
Badminton NC is a place to nurture that talent and enthusiasm for the game. This past October, the club hosted the NC Open, its first USA Badminton sanctioned tournament with prize money totaling $12,000 and sponsorship from Adidas and Credit Suisse.
The tournament attracted the four-time national champion of India, Chetan Anand, who was ranked No. 14 in the world. In three games, Anand triumphed over, Mattias Borg, currently ranked 97th. As national coach of Sweden, Christensen trained Borg until this past spring. In mixed doubles Falkenberg and Borg beat a strong pair from Boston. And Soumya of Badminton NC, the No. 1 seed at last year's USA junior nationals, won the N.C. Open adult women's singles and doubles events.
Gade herself might be what the sport in the U.S. needs. She is training for the Junior International Trials that will be held in April, where she wants to win the Under 19 singles to qualify for the World Junior Championships. She is improving her footwork and speed, and strengthening her backhand and long serves.
"It is by no means an easy task and I have to have a very strict training regimen on top of all my schoolwork and studying for the SATs," she says, "but I'm ready for the challenge."
And as for Souyma's living room, the walls are now clean.
The game: Competitive badminton is played indoors, as singles or doubles. First team or player to score 21 points wins a game. A match is three games.
The shuttle: 5 grams, 16-feathered, cork-based, strikeable only on one end. It flies, but doesn't bounce, which is key.
Fun facts: When sliced, crosscourt or reverse, the shuttle drops off like a baseball slider. When smashed, it shoots at speeds up to 206 mph at a steep angle to the floor or into the body of one's opponent.
Badminton's distinguishing characteristic is that the players switch between a tactical use of power, deception and graceful agility, subtly setting up advantage within microseconds and through the course of a rally. In the Quarterfinals of 2013 World Championship match point, Jan Jorgensen (Denmark) and Tien Minh Nguyen (Vietnam) struck the shuttle 108 times in a 2 minute 2 second rally, running, jumping and lunging about 1/10th of a mile each.
This article appeared in print with the headline, "Olympic dreams."