Badminton was recognized as an Olympic sport in 1992. Since then, the U.S. has been represented in men’s and women’s singles and doubles, but this year’s Summer Games will boast the first American mixed doubles team.
For 22-year-old Phillip Chew, a sophomore in business economics at the University of California, Irvine, going to Rio de Janeiro as a member of this team is the crowning achievement in a sport he’s been part of since he was just 21 months old. That’s when his grandfather, Don Chew, an elite player himself, put a badminton racquet in the toddler’s hand – not a child’s racquet but a full-size one. “Phillip would always choose the adult racquet,” says his mother, Karina. “He never wanted to use the smaller one.”
Sitting his grandson on his lap, Don Chew would hold a fishing pole dangling a shuttlecock and observe the boy’s swing, making note of his accuracy, speed and strength. He soon realized that the child was a prodigy. At age 5, Phillip was the youngest player in the U.S. National Junior Championships, where he won the singles and doubles titles in the under-8 events. That same year, he was on the cover of World Badminton magazine, being hailed as “Badminton’s Future.”
In 1996, Don Chew bought the Orange County Badminton Club in Orange, which is where Phillip Chew has spent much of his life. “It’s a family business,” he says. “I’m here all the time. It’s like my home.” While attending Villa Park High School, Chew began competing in international tournaments. Over his junior and senior years, he missed 60 to 70 days of school. “The administration was very accommodating to me, and it’s paid off now,” he says.
Having grown up in the spotlight, Chew handles the attention, excitement and Olympic expectations of family, friends and the entire U.S. badminton fan base surprisingly well. ”I’m pretty even-keeled,” he says with a shrug. “I’m more of a demon when I’m on the court. I don’t get too high or too low. I do better under pressure than most, because all I can do is my best. I can’t control anything else. Sometimes you play your best and don’t win, and other times you play your best and get an upset.”
Chew is hoping for an upset in Rio, where the badminton matches will be played Aug. 11-18. The U.S. is not favored; China, Indonesia and Denmark are the powerhouses. But regardless of athletic success, Chew is looking forward to the attention the Olympic Games will bring to the sport. “More exposure will help people see badminton for what it really is,” he says, “and Olympic medals will help it get an even bigger audience – like Michael Phelps did for swimming.”
Watching Chew and his men’s doubles partner, Sattawat Pongnairat, and mixed doubles partner, Jamie Subandhi, practice at the OCBC is an eye-opening experience. This badminton is not the casual, lighthearted backyard game most of us are familiar with. This is a fast-paced, powerful competition that requires agility and stamina. The speed and force of the volleys during practice, punctuated by the sounds of rubber-soled shoes squeaking, grunts of exertion and groans of missed shots, foster a deep appreciation of the players’ athleticism and skill.
“Badminton is the fastest racquet sport in the world, clocked at 306 mph,” Chew says. “To do well, you have to love the game and dedicate yourself to it. It’s all about how much time and energy you’re willing to devote to become good. When you’re in peak training, it’s your job. And unlike going to the office, where you can slide now and then, you have to give your best effort all the time – no dillydallying.”
“Peak training” requires five hours a day, six days a week. The regimen involves lifting weights three days a week and running the other three days – in addition to three hours of play all six days.
“I’m only 22, and in badminton, your best years are in your late 20s,” Chew notes. “I’m looking forward to the Rio Games, of course, but also have my eye on the 2020 Games in Japan. I have to be much stronger and faster, so I have a lot of work to do to get there.”