More Than Birdies And Backyards: This Olympian Will School You On Badminton : The Torch Howard Shu, the sole U.S. men's singles player in badminton, is hoping to make an impact in a sport that's largely dominated by Asian countries.
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More Than Birdies And Backyards: This Olympian Will School You On Badminton

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

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

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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.

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