As a kid, Howard Shu wanted to play basketball. He idolized Michael Jordan (who contributed to Shu’s lifelong obsession with sneakers), he dreamt of being an Asian-American in the NBA, he loved Space Jam.
Then, when he was eight, his dad put a racquet in his hand.
This wasn’t for tennis or squash or racquetball. It was for badminton—a sport, Shu acknowledges, most people in the United States associate with drinking beer in the backyard. He was growing up in southern California with Taiwanese parents, and he quickly learned that he had the build and natural skill to play the fastest racquet sport in the world.
“I started getting better and better and I was really just drawn to the sport—the high-intensity of it, the fast scoring, the high pace. It really drew me in,” Shu said on the phone from Rio, where he’s the highest ranking American badminton player and is representing the country in men’s singles, which begins on August 11. “Now I’m sitting here 17 years later, about to compete in my first Olympic games.”
With the shuttlecock—a feathered cone topped with a rounded piece of cork—reaching speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, professional matches usually consist of the player making contact 40 to 50 times within 20 seconds. (For those who are curious: it does hurt to get hit with one.) Though they don’t often get hit in matches, Shu said players play a game called whips, in which the loser stands on the end of the badminton court “and the winner gets to smack a shuttle at you at your butt. So you can get a nice welt, like a paintball welt.” He also told me about a video where a shuttlecock gets lodged into a watermelon.
This is because, unlike the pastime you’re used to playing at a barbecue, professional badminton is played on a court, indoors, in a controlled environment. Players—in singles or doubles matches—dive and stretch across the court, hardly making it to shuttlecocks smashed into a far corner, dropped over the net, or lobbed to the back line. In one match a player can run more than a mile within the 20-foot by 44-foot court.
“For me, just to have all of these components that you need to master to become a good player—it was a challenge,” Shu said. “You have to have agility, you have to have stamina, you have to have strength, you have to have explosiveness, you have to have strategy, and just that mental aspect.”
No American has ever medaled in badminton, a sport which was first added to the summer Olympics in 1992 and remains most popular in Europe and Asia. Only 10 countries have won medals—China, South Korea, Indonesia, Denmark, Malaysia, Great Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, India, and Russia. This year, with more U.S. players competing than ever before, we might just have a better shot than ever.
But since badminton is still catching on in the U.S., Shu moved to Taiwan to train after he graduated from UCLA in 2013. He spent the last two years training for seven hours every day. A typical day consisted of waking up at 5:30 a.m., running on the track for an hour, working on technique for three hours, then breakfast, working on core training, performing shuttlecock drills with the coach, working on defense, then hitting the gym for weights and treadmill. Then nothing: He’d watch TV. Sports, mostly.
“For the last two and half years, I never really had time to just enjoy some of those normal liberties like going out to dinner with friends,” Shu said. “Those are the things that I definitely don’t take for granted at all—those little things.”
Then there’s the money thing, which in badminton is the difficult part.
“Our sport is not one of the high-earning sports yet, like tennis or golf,” Shu said. “So you can make a living with badminton if you’re up there with the top 10 or 15 players—they’re making really good money. For the rest of us, it’s tough.”
Most players find a sponsor, who helps with their travel and equipment expenses. Shu has his own, and his parents have also helped him out while he trained for the Olympics.
It paid off: Shu is now ranked No. 64 in the world. His first match on Friday is against Indonesian Tommy Sugiarto, who is ranked No. 8 in the world. “I’m gonna be the underdog,” Shu said, “but at this point I feel like I can give anyone a run for their money.”