More Than Birdies And Backyards: This Olympian Will School You On Badminton

Aug 3, 2016
Originally published on August 4, 2016 5:00 pm

It is the world's fastest racquet sport, with speeds up to 250 miles per hour off the racquet.

And it may be one of the most misunderstood.

Badminton — that staple of backyard picnics and summer camp — becomes, at the expert level, a sport that requires lightning-quick reflexes, explosive power, stamina and agility.

This year, the U.S. is sending its biggest badminton team ever to the Olympics.

Seven U.S. athletes will compete in singles and doubles play, with hopes of breaking a U.S. medal drought in a sport dominated by Asian players, with a few Europeans in the mix as well. Badminton is one of just a few sports in which the U.S. has never medaled.

Howard Shu of Anaheim, Calif., 25, will be the sole U.S. men's singles player. Shu, currently ranked 67th in the world, started playing badminton when he was 8, and has spent the last 17 years perfecting his game.

For the last few years, that's meant going to train in Taiwan, where the quality and variety of players is higher than in the U.S.

In Asia, badminton is huge, and Shu feeds off that enthusiasm.

"When we're playing in China or Indonesia," he says, "they're packed stadiums: 10-, 20,000 people."

But, if badminton doesn't have the same respect in the U.S. that it does in Asia, Shu is able to shrug it off. After all, he's used to hearing challenges from people who whacked a birdie around as kids, and boast that they can take him on.

"There's no way they could even score a point on me," he says.

As I watch him practice at the San Gabriel Valley Badminton Club in Pomona, Calif., that easy confidence becomes clear.

Shu and his training partner skim over the floor, practicing drive shots that whiz flat over the net.

Sneaky drop shots that just barely poke over, and then sink.

And huge overhead smashes, hard enough to break a racquet string.

The birdies they use also take a real pounding.

Expert players might go through a couple of dozen birdies, or shuttlecocks, during a match.

The ones they use are made with 16 overlapping feathers that form a cone. Not just any feathers: they're goose feathers from the left wing only.

Shu is hard to miss on the court. He's tall for a badminton player, at 6-foot-1, and he loves flashy shoes. On the day I visit, they're fluorescent orange.

Shu is, by his own description, "a sneakerhead." Given his last name, he says, grinning, that's appropriate.

In fact, he's chosen shusonmyfeet as his Instagram handle, and he has a huge collection of sneakers to choose from: "It's about 90 to 10 pairs now, so it's getting up there."

To understand how intensely Shu is training to get ready for the Olympics, I tagged along with him as he worked out with his personal trainer at Winner Circle Athletics in Corona, Calif.

Eliseo Cabildo has trained lots of athletes, but never a badminton player before. When he was asked to train Shu, "I was very surprised," he says, laughing.

Cabildo puts Shu through a grueling sequence of plyometric exercises designed to boost muscle power. He attaches bungee cords to a waist harness, forcing Shu to jump against resistance. On the treadmill, Shu runs fast sprints on a steep incline to build endurance. They work on quick-twitch reaction and explosive hip power, both crucial to excelling on the badminton court.

After a workout, when Shu is totally exhausted and in pain, he slides into compression boots up to his thighs to pump lactic acid out of his leg muscles.

Twice a week he turns to his physical therapist, Ryan Reyes, for treatment.

For stiffness in Shu's Achilles tendon, Reyes uses a metal device called a Graston tool to scrape down the fascia and break up adhesions (and yes, you bet it hurts.)

For Shu's right shoulder, which bears the brunt of his badminton game, Reyes presses against it with a deep muscle stimulator, a gun-like tool that sends strong percussive vibrations into the muscle.

And finally, after several therapeutic minutes of groaning and wincing in pain, Shu finds release by lying down for a nap in a hyperbaric chamber, "just like LeBron James," Shu notes.

It's a cocoon of pressurized pure oxygen designed to help with performance and recovery.

Before a big match, after he shakes hands with his opponent, Shu tells me, he will kneel, say a quick prayer and think of his late grandmother.

"My grandma's watching me, so I'll give her a little acknowledgement," he says. "I'll look at the sky and point at her."

Around his neck, Shu wears two gold angel wing pendants to honor both his late grandmother and his mother. Those wings "remind me that I always have the both of them watching over me wherever I go, whatever I'm doing."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That let's talk about some of the other Olympic sports, not the ones that suck up the attention, like swimming, gymnastics, track and field. There are a total of 41 Olympic summer sports, and hundreds of American athletes are training out of the spotlight. NPR's Melissa Block caught up with one of them in Southern California.

HOWARD SHU: So my name's Howard Shu. I'm from Anaheim, Calif. So I play badminton.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Howard Shu has spent 17 years perfecting his game. He's 25 now. He'll be competing in men's singles badminton in Rio, and he'd like to clear up a few misconceptions.

SHU: The first misconception is - it's not an outdoor sport.

BLOCK: This is not the backyard game of your childhood. Wind is the enemy. It's played indoors, and it is the fastest racquet sport.

SHU: We hit close to 240 or 250 miles an hour, impact off of the racket.

BLOCK: So imagine how Shu feels when people who whacked a birdie around as kids boast - oh, I can take you on.

SHU: There's no way they could even score a point on me.

BLOCK: Howard Shu practices at the San Gabriel Valley Badminton Club in Pomona. Shu and his training partner skim over the floor, practicing drive shots that whiz flat over the net, sneaky drop shots that just barely poke over and then sink, and huge overhead smashes hard enough to break a string.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADMINTON RALLY)

SHU: Whoa, there it goes. There's a string. Did you hear that?

BLOCK: Just gone.

SHU: Yeah.

BLOCK: And the birdies take a real pounding. Expert players might go through a couple of dozen birdies, or shuttlecocks, during a match. The ones they use are made with 16 feathers that form a cone - and not just any feathers.

SHU: These feathers are only goose feathers from the left wing, and you can kind of see how they go this way only.

BLOCK: Howard Shu is hard to miss on the court, tall for a badminton player at 6-feet-1. And he loves flashy shoes - fluorescent orange today. Shu is, by his own description, a sneakerhead, appropriate, he says, given his last name. He has a huge collection to choose from.

SHU: It's about 90 to 100 pairs now. So it's getting up there.

BLOCK: You think? For the last few years, Howard Shu has been training in Taiwan. The quality and variety of players is a lot higher there. In Asia, badminton is huge.

SHU: When we're playing in China or in Indonesia, they're packed stadiums - 10-, 20,000 people.

BLOCK: And players from Asian countries dominate in world competition.

ELISEO CABILDO: Run. Last six seconds, baby. Finish. Get up there. Get up there. Go up. Go up.

BLOCK: As the Olympics drew closer, Howard Shu came back home to California. He's been getting into peak form, sweating through grueling workouts with a personal trainer. Eliseo Cabildo has trained lots of athletes but never a badminton player.

CABILDO: I was very surprised (laughter).

BLOCK: They work on fast-twitch reflexes, speed, agility, explosive power. And when Howard's body is totally exhausted and in pain...

RYAN REYES: (Unintelligible) You ready?

SHU: Yeah, I'm ready.

REYES: All right.

BLOCK: ...Shu has a physical therapist tending to him. Today, he's getting deep-muscle stimulation on his right shoulder. Shu winces as the metal tool sends strong percussive vibrations into his muscle.

REYES: There you go.

BLOCK: And finally...

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE RUNNING, ZIPPER CLOSING)

BLOCK: ...He gets zipped into a hyperbaric chamber - just like LeBron James, he tells me - and settles in for a nap. He'll be breathing pure oxygen. It helps with performance and recovery. Howard Shu needs to bring everything he's got to Rio. Badminton is one of a handful of Olympic sports where the U.S. has never won a medal. Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.