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Real Men Hit Birdies--er, Make That Shuttlecocks


Every Friday, as many as a dozen Orange police officers get together for a few hard-fought and exhausting games of . . .


Badminton? You bet. Take it from John R. Robertson, triathlete, weightlifter and the city's chief of police.

"It's therapeutic, it's a tremendous workout," Robertson says. "Law enforcement people are very competitive by nature, and badminton is a very competitive sport."

The department's love affair with the game started with the opening in Orange last July of the $3-million Orange County Badminton Club, by many accounts the largest--and finest--badminton facility in the nation. A couple of lieutenants tried the game and endured some ribbing while spreading the word.

"There was a lot of kidding about it not being a real macho-type sport, but it caught on and I love it," says Robertson, who has joined a league in addition to playing on Fridays. "This is a sport where you have fun and you get the workout, but you don't even realize what a workout you're getting."

Club owner Don Chew loves stories like that. He has made it his mission to take badminton's image in the United States beyond backyard barbecues and high school P.E. In parts of Asia, as well as in Britain and Scandinavia, badminton can border on national obsession, but here it rates nary a radar blip.

Chew, a Thai immigrant and self-made owner of a family printing business who is pursuing his mission out of pure love of the game, says raising badminton's profile in this country requires two things: proper facilities and players who can compete on an international level. Developing the second depends on the first.

"I'd really like to see the U.S. doing very well. We're not even in the top 10," he says. By opening his club and hiring top international coaches, he's hoping to change that. Badminton became an Olympic sport in 1992; Chew dreams of having a U.S. player win a medal in 2004 or 2008.

"We're training some kids now that I hope will be stars of the future," says Chew. Already, the club boasts among its members the top female player in the country, Cindy Shi of Orange. And then there are the long-term prospects--including his own grandson, Phillip, who at 3 already has mastered the game's basics.

Developing champions isn't Chew's only aim, however. The club is building a base of recreational players, signing up about 300 full-time members in less than a year of operation. A league-play system, started in January and open to nonmembers, started with 14 teams and has grown to 40.


Nonmembers are invited to drop by the club and watch (league play is Monday through Wednesday nights) or to take part in a free group lesson offered every Sunday from 1 to 2 p.m. If your experience with badminton is confined to languidly knocking a shuttlecock across a net on a lazy summer afternoon, leave those preconceptions at the door.

At the top level of play, the shuttlecock can leave the racquet at 200 mph. The game is about more than sheer speed or brute strength, however. Agility, quick reflexes and strategy--which includes deception--are paramount, with experienced players adroitly mixing the four basic shots in the badminton arsenal: the clear (a high shot hit deep to the back of the court), the drive (a horizontal shot hit deep), the drop (a strategic shot that falls after barely clearing the net) and the smash (which is just what you'd think it is).

"You sweat a lot in one hour. You run around a lot more than in tennis," says Chew. This despite the fact that a badminton court, at 20 by 44 feet, is about one-fourth the size of a tennis court.

Chew also extols the aerobic benefits of the game. He was an elite player in Thailand, playing competitively until his marriage in 1965 (to Kim Chew, whom he met on the court and with whom he competed in mixed doubles). With his emigration from Thailand, and the responsibilities of a growing family (sons Gus and Montri and daughter Bebe are part of the printing and badminton businesses), he put down the racquet for 25 years.

Six years ago, he set up a makeshift court in his old printing plant and began playing daily again. "I lost 20 pounds," he says. "My blood pressure is down, my cholesterol is down." What's more, he has been the national doubles champion in the 45-and-older age group for three years running.

A one-man cheering squad for the sport, Chew has hosted numerous tournaments, from high school contests to the U.S. Open, which drew some of the world's best players and boasted a $200,000 prize purse. In an indication of how far the sport still has to go in this country, that competition was televised live in much of Asia but was barely mentioned in the local media.

But if the sport is to take off in this country, it has to start somewhere, and many feel Chew has provided that starting point.

"This is an extremely exciting development for the sport. This is a steppingstone," says Paisan Rangsikitpho, vice president of the U.S. Badminton Assn. and a Santa Barbara resident who regularly makes the trek to Orange to play at Chew's club.

"I think it's great to have this establishment," says Robertson. "I am absolutely sure that this sport will take off in this country. It's too much fun."


Badminton Club Facts

Orange County Badminton Club is at 1432 N. Main St. in Orange. Membership is $60 per month, with a $250 initiation fee. Non-members can pay a $12 guest fee for unlimited play, or rent a court for $20 an hour. League play and lessons are also available. Information: (714) 639-6222.

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