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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | Southland Focus / A Look at
Area Athletes Making their Mark at the Summer Games

True Believer : Anaheim's Von Heiland Beats Drum for Her Sport Even Though She's No Medal Hopeful in Badminton

July 26, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Erika Von Heiland is a badminton evangelist. And like many true believers, she's zealous enough to make you want her to quiet down a little.

"I tell you, I never get tired of talking about it," said Von Heiland, one of three members of the U.S. badminton team. "Hopefully, I will live a long life, and I will always talk about badminton. It's not a sport the American public understands. They imagine a hot dog in one hand, a soda in the other, and the racket somewhere in between. We play indoors, and the action on a badminton court is very, very fast. We don't call it a birdie, either. Birdie is a golf term. It's a shuttlecock."

And then she is off on a description of the white goose feathers attached to the leather-covered cork tip, how the 16 feathers must be plucked from under the left wing, and on and on until someone stops her.

Still, Von Heiland's fervor is earnest, and it has little to do with her own hopes of glory.

There is not a minute of badminton coverage scheduled on NBC during the Olympics. Besides, Von Heiland knows where she stands in the world of badminton, and it is not on top of it. She is the best female badminton player in the United States, but 89th best in the world.

Indonesia dominates the sport. The Americans? An Olympic medal might be 20 or more years away.

Four years of training, planning, sacrifice and expense, and Von Heiland's Olympic experience ended in 47 minutes--20 to lose her first-round singles match Wednesday and 27 minutes in a first-round doubles loss with Linda French Thursday. In the doubles match against the world's third-ranked team, Lisbet Stuer-Lauridsen and Marlene Thomsen of Denmark, Von Heiland and French lost 20 consecutive points and were eliminated, 15-4, 15-1.

"Sometimes, we travel halfway around the world to lose in the first round. Winning isn't everything," said Von Heiland, who also made the Olympic team in 1992, losing in the first round then as well.

"All my sponsors say, 'Go for the gold!' I tell them, flat out, I'm not a medal contender. Then they say, 'Don't think like that. Maybe the bronze?' They don't understand. I tell them, 'I'm not going to win a medal. If I advance one round, I'll be floored.'

"Linda and I, our triumph is to be here in Atlanta, because it was a struggle to get here. It's extremely difficult to qualify. It's not enough to be the best in America. We had to go around the world trying to get enough points to be here."

Von Heiland grew up in the Philippines, coming to the United States in 1985. Her father is of Filipino and German descent, her mother from St. Louis.

"I would not have picked up the sport had I grown up in the U.S.," said Von Heiland, 30, who moved to Anaheim in 1985, attended Arizona State and now lives at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. "It's extremely difficult to find a place to play. California, I would say, is one of the most popular places to play badminton. But I used to drive 45 minutes every Monday to play, and you'd sign up for the court. Then if you'd lose in five minutes, you'd have to wait 45 minutes to get on the court again. It took a lot of time and energy."

Some of that is changing. California is one of only seven states that have high school badminton, along with Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota and New York.

And in Orange County, not far from Anaheim Stadium, a new 18-court facility called the Orange County Badminton Club has opened. The $225,000 U.S. Open will be played there Sept. 24-28.

Von Heiland believes college programs are the key to the game's advancement, and bemoans that her coach didn't pursue legal action when Arizona State dropped its program.

"My coach didn't fight it, can you believe that?" she said. "Nobody's ever lost a Title IX suit."

At Arizona State, Von Heiland and French found badminton afforded them certain "money-making opportunities," as French put it.

"Football and basketball players would come to the weight room and say, 'What do you do? What sport are you?' " Von Heiland said. "When we told them badminton, they'd say, 'Why are you lifting weights?' "

One friendly wager on a game of badminton later, the big men on campus were chastened.

"They bought some kegs," French said.

"Yeah," Von Heiland said. "And then they'd tell everybody, 'Don't play them, they're sharks.' "

It was a little taste of victory for two women who don't get to savor it enough.

"I've had five knee surgeries, and I'm still playing badminton," Von Heiland said. "To me, my gold medal victory is just to get here."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile

* Athlete: Erika Von Heiland.

* Discipline: Badminton.

* Hometown: Anaheim.

* Competitive history: 1992 Barcelona Games, lost in first round. Bronze medalist in '95 Pan American Games in women's doubles, with Linda French. Third place, U.S. national championships, '92 and '93. First place in doubles at the '93 U.S. Olympic Festival.

* Record: Ranked 89th in world in singles, 42nd in doubles with French.

* Personal: Born in Philippines. Trains full time at U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Works for Home Depot through the Olympic Job Opportunities Program. Has had five knee surgeries.

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