A game, a club, a dream: badminton’s relevance in Winnipeg is on the rise
If the test of your aspirations lies in how many people will brave the bitter cold of a Winnipeg night to see the dream take flight, Khanh Mai has just received a huge dose of affirmation.
Mai, 35, has been working at perfecting his game since returning in his mid-20s to the game he played sparingly in high school. And on Dec. 29, at the Wheelies Roller Rink at 1010 Logan Avenue, some 125 spectators turned out to watch Mai and partner Dan Savard go against two of Canada’s finest players: Toby Ng and Manitoban Andrew Harrison.
Ng, 29, and Grace Gao, 25, played together at the London Olympics in 2012, and came to Winnipeg over the holidays to hold a camp for elite players. Both are working towards Rio next year. They agreed to play exhibition games on the frozen Monday night at Wheelies, where Mai and a handful of faithful volunteers have been building a successful badminton access program that is attracting hordes of enthusiasts of all skill levels and ages.
The evening featured games with young developmental players, Manitoba elite players – including Gao’s game with Manitoban Colleen Gillespie against Melissa Liew and Serena Lam – capped by Mai and Savard’s fast-paced match against Ng and Harrison, who has represented Canada at international events.
The first game was hard-fought, with Mai and Savard finding their legs after a few opening rallies to take a respectable 17 points on the national stars. The second game saw the duo come within a hair’s breadth of a win, topping Ng and Harrison 21-20 before falling 23-21 to the stronger players. Two games straight for Ng and Harrison, but the hometown boys earned huge respect from the bleachers for the competition on display.
For Mai, it was a momentous step toward the big dream, and a personal highlight to date.
“It was a great feeling to play against that level of competition and in front of a decent crowd. That’s been the ultimate test of my skills I’ve developed over the years; so far, anyway,” says Mai, whose goal is to play competitively in the 2016 Nationals tournament that will be played in this city.
For Savard, a provincial high schools singles champ who has competed at the Canadian Nationals and repeat Winter Games, it was intimidating to face an Olympian before a home crowd. And, while noting his formidable opponents might have pulled some shots, he felt good about the game he and Mai brought to the court.
The access program, an outreach effort of the Manitoba Badminton Association, used the occasion to fundraise for its endowment fund, which aims to improve facilities, equipment and open more venues for young and older Manitobans looking to get into, improve or just enjoy the game.
“I was quite nervous, honestly,” Savard, 25, confides. “I’ve played against some of Canada’s top players before. All I could think about was feeling 3 steps behind, making every shot a struggle. I was able to relax into the match as it went on, though, thankfully. I kept telling myself to put on a smile and enjoy it, which became natural after the first few long rallies.
“The crowd was great, and it was awesome to see an audience of that size enjoying badminton in the Prairies,” he continues. “The pace was much faster, and you could feel Toby’s superior speed and positioning… After watching and editing video of the match, I could see they held back on punishing our weaker shots.”
This is a sports story. Aspiring athletes, young and old, might identify with a dream of playing in the big leagues in front of friends, family and supporters. From the youngest players who matched up on Dec. 29th and the local women who tested their mettle against the impressive Gao, it was evident the love of badminton drives their game.
But the backstory here is bigger than a few games played out on a blustery, blistering winter night.
It is the story of raising the profile of badminton in Winnipeg, an initiative started by Mai, with the help of fellow enthusiasts — Souvigna Phrakonkham, Mike Dubois, Jack De Koning, Gregory Chan and program participants such as Savard, Kem Wong and Paulo Ramos — as a labour of love in the belief that badminton could be much more than it has been in Winnipeg. And it is about our city, which in the last decade has welcomed increasing numbers of immigrants, especially from Asia where badminton is beloved.
On any Monday, Thursday or Friday night and Sunday morning at the roller rink, dedicated volunteers set up the six nets on a floor criss-crossed with a matrix of court lines and divided mid-gym by intimidating structural pillars. At times, 50 people vie for court time: Whole families arrive; baseball teams looking to socialize off the field; young identified talent learning from skilled mentors ready to share their wisdom and experience.
At Wheelies on game night, a chattering of languages lends a perfectly UN-ish atmosphere to the place.
Ady Doctolero, who arrived in Winnipeg about a year ago, said her favourite play time is amid the summer heat, reminding her of the sweat and exhaustion of games in Singapore where she lived for years before emigrating.
Paul Nitschke, a Grade 10 international student recently arrived from Bad Homburg in Germany, takes the hour-long bus ride each way from Transcona to get to Wheelies, where he can work on his game at a variety of levels. “There are always higher-skilled players and enough players to have great games. It is really inexpensive and, as a student, I just don’t have enough money to go to one of these super-expensive clubs.”
Others regularly make the drive from Steinbach and Selkirk, a testament to the success of the program.
Mai says that was the vision when he set out to make badminton available and affordable to whoever was looking for a game. It started humbly; at times, he notes, he would be alone at a makeshift gym in a social hall waiting for someone, anyone to show up. The club moved into Wheelies in October, 2012, and word eventually got around.
Getting court time is tough in Winnipeg, Mai says.
And there’s lots of work, yet, says the man whose family fled Vietnam, finally settling in Canada 25 years ago. He wants to make the game widely accessible to Winnipeggers, regardless of income or skill level.
That’s why the development fund was established, to ensure equipment and venues are available.
“The access program, to me, is the result of one man’s passion for the sport, and the support system that ensued,” says Savard, who first met Khanh on the court in 2010.
“Khanh is no stranger to being an underdog, nor is he a stranger to dreaming big: Every year, progress is made with the development of the players who attend, the facility itself, and the community supporting it. The access program has become a great place to make new friends, along with being the best option in town to play some quality badminton with little cost.”
The goal is to expand, to other gyms across the city, reaching more people, and perhaps one day open a new venue expressly for badminton.
“I would love to be able to run programming out of a 12-court facility,” Mai says.
The game against Ng was a sort of reward for a job well done to date for Mai. It was “the culmination of all the energy and work I’ve put into badminton. In the grand scheme of things, it was not a remarkable event that will leave a big impact, but it was a very positive sign that we are heading in the right direction and there is a growing movement. No doubt about it.”
Savard says Mai is determined to put his club on the map in Winnipeg, building top-flight talent among players that would not otherwise have this opportunity. “He is still dead-set on winning a provincial title for the club he’s built from the ground up.”
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In the meantime, the program is knitting together the community in this city, introducing Winnipeggers from disparate backgrounds to each other, at a place where long-time residents and the born-and-bred join newcomers who are key to ensuring this city thrives culturally and economically.
“I’ve always believed that badminton could be a great way to reach out and connect people with one another,” Mai says. “I think most people get it when they play at Wheelies. Imagine if we were able to remove even more barriers.
“We have great people helping the cause. It keeps me motivated.”
Anyone with a love for badminton (or is curious about what the fuss is all about) is welcome at Wheelies, Monday, Thursday evenings and late Friday nights and Sunday morning.
More exhibition games and fundraisers are planned. To stay updated about the program’s current events, look up “Manitoba Badminton Association Access Program” and “like” the page on Facebook.