Badminton was recognized as an Olympic sport in 1992. Since then, the U.S. has been represented in menâ€™s and womenâ€™s singles and doubles, but this yearâ€™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 heâ€™s been part of since he was just 21 months old. Thatâ€™s when his grandfather, Don Chew, an elite player himself, put a badminton racquet in the toddlerâ€™s hand â€“ not a childâ€™s racquet but a full-size one. â€śPhillip would always choose the adult racquet,â€ť says his mother, Karina. â€śHe never wanted to use the smaller one.â€ť
Sitting his grandson on his lap, Don Chew would hold a fishing pole dangling a shuttlecock and observe the boyâ€™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 â€śBadmintonâ€™s Future.â€ť
In 1996, Don Chew bought the Orange County Badminton Club in Orange, which is where Phillip Chew has spent much of his life. â€śItâ€™s a family business,â€ť he says. â€śIâ€™m here all the time. Itâ€™s like my home.â€ť 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. â€śThe administration was very accommodating to me, and itâ€™s paid off now,â€ť 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. â€ťIâ€™m pretty even-keeled,â€ť he says with a shrug. â€śIâ€™m more of a demon when Iâ€™m on the court. I donâ€™t get too high or too low. I do better under pressure than most, because all I can do is my best. I canâ€™t control anything else. Sometimes you play your best and donâ€™t win, and other times you play your best and get an upset.â€ť
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. â€śMore exposure will help people see badminton for what it really is,â€ť he says, â€śand Olympic medals will help it get an even bigger audience â€“ like Michael Phelps did for swimming.â€ť
Watching Chew and his menâ€™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 playersâ€™ athleticism and skill.
â€śBadminton is the fastest racquet sport in the world, clocked at 306 mph,â€ť Chew says. â€śTo do well, you have to love the game and dedicate yourself to it. Itâ€™s all about how much time and energy youâ€™re willing to devote to become good. When youâ€™re in peak training, itâ€™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 â€“ no dillydallying.â€ť
â€śPeak trainingâ€ť requires five hours a day, six days a week. The regimen involves lifting weights three days a week and running the other three days â€“ in addition to three hours of play all six days.
â€śIâ€™m only 22, and in badminton, your best years are in your late 20s,â€ť Chew notes. â€śIâ€™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.â€ť