On a chilly Tuesday night, nothing but the sleepy hum of the highway disturbed the silence of an Emeryville street. But inside a giant warehouse behind the railroad tracks, it was another story. Dozens of men and women filled the air with screeches, thumps, and screams of joy and frustration that released small plumes of white vapor into the equally cold air inside.
Emeryville's Golden Gate Badminton Club is where those in the know come to play badminton — the world's fastest racket sport, as well as its most misunderstood. As if to debunk the stereotype of the game as an outdoor activity for children, the courts were alive with the deep sound of taut rackets hitting the cork-and-feather shuttlecocks. Players alternated short and long strikes, trying to surprise their opponents with accurate drops and furious smashes or send them scurrying from side to side.
Dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts, players competed against one another or in pairs, periodically plucking white birdies from overflowing bins. Those who weren't practicing sat on benches observing the games, resting between matches, or waiting for friends.
On one court, 72-year-old Ted Simas and a young male teammate played against a fierce Asian couple. Simas covered the front of the court near the net, compensating for a slight limp with powerful strikes that often took his opponents by surprise.
On another court, 23-year-old coach Ted Shear trained three women how to drop, a useful tactic designed to bring the birdie down from high up in the air with a semi-soft hit. A successful drop forces the opponent into a weak position of hitting the birdie from below. Shear showed one of the trainees the correct arm position and racket angle for an ideal drop. "It's a great game because it's one of the few sports that requires all kinds of movements — jumping, lunging, twisting, hand-eye coordination, and foot-eye coordination," he said. "There's a huge strategic element as well. On a high level, it becomes a game of physical chess."
Yet despite its appeal to players such as Shear, until recently badminton was nearly impossible to practice in the Bay Area. Athletes had nowhere to play besides community centers, high schools, or ill-equipped and often unavailable basketball courts at UC Berkeley. "I would travel all over the Bay Area to find a gym," recalled Simas, who lives in Castro Valley.
Former UC Berkeley badminton coach and entrepreneur Mike Yang thought the lack of badminton courts and clubs was especially strange given Bay Area's sizeable population of Asian immigrants, many of whom value the sport. So in 2005, Yang, who emigrated from Taiwan in the late 1990s, opened Golden Gate Badminton Club in Menlo Park. In 2007, he added the gym in Emeryville, which is located in the former Ace warehouse on Hubbard Street.
"I've played in many places in the world and most big cities have professional badminton clubs," said Yang, a muscular, tan 34-year-old with spiky black hair who prefers jeans over suits. "However, I was surprised there was no professional badminton club in the whole Bay Area."
Since then, the situation improved rapidly. Other entrepreneurs have been opening gyms made specifically and solely for badminton, and today, Yang's facilities are just two of nine badminton gyms that have sprung up in the Bay Area, both reflecting and facilitating the rise of interest in the sport. Now, the region is quickly assuming a place as the center of American badminton.
Yang played badminton with his family since he was a child and began training with a coach at the age of eighteen. He continued improving his skills in the Taiwanese military, where he made the badminton team. When he moved to the Bay Area, a friend told him that UC Berkeley was looking for a badminton coach. Yang gladly volunteered.
"They needed a coach and I needed a place to train," he said. "At the time, it was so tough to find any place to even have the courts to train. So, it served two purposes — I loved to give back to the people who love the sport and second, I was able to train there myself."
As a coach, Yang led the Berkeley badminton team to the top of the National Badminton Collegiates. As a player, he was ranked second in the United States in 2003. In addition to his badminton career, Yang was also studying architecture and design at California College of the Arts. Upon graduation, he decided to combine his skills and open his own badminton gym, which he helped design. After two years of searching for the right location, he settled on a warehouse in Menlo Park and sold his house to finance the new business, which like its Emeryville counterpart features green walls, blue floors, and side lighting designed to help make the white shuttlecocks easier to spot. The clubs also offer badminton supplies and training classes for children and adults.
As one of American badminton's biggest proponents, Yang has brought several national competitions to the Bay Area, including the recent three-day National Team Trials held at his club in Menlo Park. This year, the free-to-watch tournament attracted 57 top players, a record number of the country's best.
"That shows there are more top players in the US," Yang said, with a smile. "I think US badminton entered a new chapter in the last three, four years since all the clubs opened. I believe the future of US badminton is pretty bright."
One sign of the gyms' success is evident in local junior championships, which have seen a rise both in attendance and the level of play. But even as badminton's popularity grows in the Bay Area, one thing still prevents it from becoming a major American pastime — its misleading image as a backyard sport.
Badminton fans are always eager to point out that in its true competitive form badminton is strictly an indoor sport that should only be practiced in a controlled environment. Players who come to Golden Gate Badminton Club, for example, must endure a lack of both heating and air conditioning. Even the slightest air flow can create a draft deadly for the aerodynamic birdie, which is made from goose feathers and weighs a mere five grams.
Another common misconception about badminton is the strength and speed required to play the game. It's one of the hardest sports to photograph or show on television because the birdie can fly as fast as 200 miles per hour and is often rallied back and forth at a tremendous pace, causing players to constantly move from one side of the court to another. Because of that, badminton players develop extremely muscular legs.
As the 72-year-old Simas put it defensively, "It's not some sissy sport."
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