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New Kids in Town

Players hone their living skills as well as their badminton games while staying at the Orange training center.

April 20, 1999|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You might call it a year-round slumber party.

Except instead of late-night pillow fights, there's a good chance of an impromptu badminton match breaking out.

Eight teenage girls, six of whom attend nearby Villa Park High, are living in two one-bedroom dormitories on the second floor of the Orange County Badminton Club in Orange. They are training under a recently established USA Badminton program to develop the sport at the junior level.

Ranging in age from 14 to 19, the girls gave up friends, family and lives in places as far away as New York, Maryland and Illinois to pursue a dream of representing the United States in the Olympics.

And though badminton is the primary reason they have come, they have found they are also learning about life and responsibility.

Everyday chores such as grocery shopping, cooking and laundry are things parents normally took care of back home. Banking and balancing a checkbook were foreign concepts. Now all are part of their regular routine.

"I never did my laundry before I came here," said 17-year-old Alison Brown, from Long Island, N.Y. "And I had to do all of my college applications without my parents' help. It's a lot of responsibility living on your own."

Normal dinner fare includes easy-to-cook meals such as pasta and frozen dinners. Bebe's Cafe, a Thai restaurant on the premises, gives the girls a 25% discount.

"We get Bebe's a lot," Brown said.

Though they share living quarters, there is a strong possibility some of the girls will find themselves on opposite sides of the net the next time a big tournament rolls around.

But the friendships they have made far outweigh the competition between them.

"It's like having seven sisters," Brown said. "We all started getting along quickly. It's nice to know that if we ever need someone to talk to, they are right there."

Of course, conflicts do arise. The eight girls share two phone lines and one Internet access line. There are two sets of bunk beds in each bedroom and bed times often clash based on who has homework and who doesn't.

"Sometimes it's kind of tough," said Amy Nguy, a 15-year-old from Silver Spring, Md. "Some of us like to do different things and it's not very quiet in the bedroom if you're trying to sleep."

Curfew for the girls is 11 p.m., but there is no lights-out time. No formal adult supervisor lives there, though 19-year-old Penny Salac is a resident and there is usually somebody working at the restaurant or the adjacent commercial printing facility 24 hours a day. Curfew violations are monitored by the club's security system.

"Each girl has her own password to turn off the alarm," said Don Chew, club owner and vice president of USA Badminton. "We can check who came in late that way."

Chew said there have been no problems in the eight months the girls have lived there.

"They are all good girls," he said. "If we kept boys here, then we might have a problem."

Explaining the living situation to friends back home has become an almost impossible task. Imagine trying to tell someone that you live in a 40,000 square-foot complex just around the corner from the Arrowhead Pond that includes a badminton club, a commercial printing plant and a Thai restaurant.

"Most of them just don't get it," Nguy said. "They're always like, 'Wait, how can you live there?' "

Said Brown: "I don't think anyone can get the idea until they come out here."

Though the the living arrangements are unusual, they are not a distraction. The girls know badminton is the reason they are here and remain focused on that.

Selected through a nationwide application process, they are all ranked among the top four of their age groups.

They receive training of the highest level. Coach Ignatius Rusli was the U.S. Olympic coach in 1996. Coach Cai Zi Min was the Thai national team coach for nine years.

It's quite a commitment. A typical day includes attending classes at Villa Park, eating, badminton, studying and more badminton.

"We're all here for one reason," Brown said. "We want to play badminton. We want to get better and if we want to improve, then we have to make the commitment. We have to make sacrifices. This is the best situation for all of us. I know if I had stayed home, I wouldn't have gotten this kind of training."

The club, with 18 championship courts, has hosted the U.S. Nationals, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Juniors in each of the last three years. Chew even purchased six of the rubber floors used in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

And, as if any reminder about why they are here is necessary, they need only walk a few steps from their bedroom door and peer out the large window that overlooks the 18 badminton courts.

"Sometimes we talk about going down there to play late at night," Brown said. "But then we figure, we'll get enough tomorrow."

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