Howard Bach: Laying the foundation for London
The economy wasn't right for Howard Bach to put his finance and risk management degree to work, so he decided to stick with badminton and take one more shot at Olympic gold.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bach and his partner Bob Malaythong made a remarkable run to the quarterfinals-a place no American had been since badminton joined the Olympic program for the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
But Malaythong retired after the Olympics, and Bach, then 29, nearly joined him.
And then the economy began to slide, and Bach's mind slid back into badminton
"I was like, 'Ah what the heck, why not?' '' Bach said. "If possible, I'll play another year or two and see how it goes.''
"Then,'' Bach added, "I had this funky idea to see if Tony would play again."
That Tony was Tony Gunawan, a badminton legend. Gunawan earned gold medals in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics and at the 2001 world championships for his native country of Indonesia.
But could Bach get Gunawan to return to the court?
What seemed like a "funky'' idea at the time, doesn't seem so farfetched now. Not only did Bach persuade Gunawan to make a comeback, but also the duo could become the best shot for the United States to win a medal in the 2012 Olympics in London.
When they first played together years ago, they became the first American team to win a world title. And they could win another world title at the 2009 BWF World Championships Aug. 10 to Aug. 16 in India.
"Hopefully we can put badminton back on the map in the U.S. again, just like we did during worlds (in 2005)," Bach said.
They're getting close.
On the court, they reached the semifinals of the German Open and the round of 32 in the All England Open, which is the oldest and one of the most prestigious badminton events.
Off the court, it's a little dicier. Gunawan received his green card in August 2006 and would need to gain citizenship by May 2011 in order to represent the United States in 2012.
All they can do now is play hard and stay optimistic.
"Now we are back together for the first year or two and if we are still competitive and still having fun and still ranked high enough, the London Olympics would definitely be an option,'' Bach said.
Added Gunawan: "Right now, me and Howard, we are trying to build up our ranking again to get our confidence back. We did two tournaments, the results were not bad, but I think we can do better than that. So still try to work on rotation and communication."
Both say the other player's style compliments his own. Bach, who plays in the back, describes Gunawan with words like playmaker, efficient and effective.
"Tony is actually really dynamic in a sense that he can play with a lot of different players and be successful," Bach said. "He's really dynamic. He keeps it real simple for players like myself."
Not to mention that he considers Gunawan to be like an older brother.
"I always felt like he was my bigger brother on the court," Bach said. "I could approach him in a pretty personal way, like you talk to a brother."
Gunawan says Bach is a powerful player with great reactions, two important elements for a backside player.
"Most important is he really works hard for it," Gunawan said.
Gunawan and Bach began their badminton journey together in 2005, the year the world championships came to Anaheim, Calif. Gunawan, had moved to California in 2002, and the pairing seemed right. At the time, they didn't realize just how right it was.
Seeded No. 13 in the world championships, Bach and Gunawan went on to defeat the world's No. 1, 2, 4 and 8 ranked teams and became the first USA badminton team to win a world championship. The duo was named the U.S. Olympic Committee's Team of the Year for 2005.
"It's always great to be the first team or person to win that title, and it felt like a dream that whole entire week," Bach said. "Going in as the underdog and overcoming obstacles and doubts-It's a great feeling to be able to prove the whole entire week that people were wrong."
But the pairing would not last.
Bach, who was 26 at the time, was itching to get back to the Olympics after making his debut at the 2004 Athens Games. But Gunawan wasn't a U.S. citizen, and therefore, he couldn't represent the country in the Olympics (citizenship wasn't a requirement for the world championships). So Bach had to find a new partner-Malaythong.
Bach went into the Olympics with hopes of winning a medal, but he wasn't too disappointed about being eliminated one round before the medal round.
"When I was in Athens, I had a lot of energy and didn't really know what to expect," Bach said. "2008 in Beijing, I knew what I wanted and where I needed to be. ... My first focus was to get on the podium and get a medal, but as much as I can I wanted to soak up the experience of the whole thing."
When Bach got back from Beijing and Malaythong retired, he found himself in a similar position: in need of a partner.
Meanwhile, while Bach worked tirelessly to get into the Olympics, Gunawan had kept in top form by training and teaching badminton in Orange County, Calif. When major tournaments came around, Gunawan would meet up with his partner from Indonesia.
Bach considered Gunawan to still be a top-five player in the world when he approached him about teaming up last September. Gunawan didn't need much time to decide.
"I told him, 'Actually, I have no plans and I am playing with my old partner,' just because there is no one to partner with in U.S.," Gunawan said. "He said, 'If you still want to play, do you want to try to play again with me, shooting for the next Olympics?' I said, 'Of course, I am honored and happy to!"
If things come together, Bach said the team should be able to break into the world top 10, if not the top five.
"I'll try not to disappoint him," Bach said. "But if I get my game together we can certainly be top five in the world."
Then, the ultimate goal is to get where no American badminton player has been before: the Olympic podium. But it's a place Gunawan knows well.
"It's like, crazy! Unbelievable," Gunawan said of winning gold in Sydney.
Bach says his last chance of reaching the podium and winning gold will be in London. If he does, Bach can feel the same emotions that Gunawan and friend Apolo Anton Ohno, a five-time U.S. medalist in speedskating, tell him about.
"(Ohno) said it's great to win the world championship, but the most important event in any sport is the Olympics," Bach said. "So until you win an Olympic medal, you have to train even harder to try to get there.
"It keeps me grounded and puts things in perspective. You can win world championships every year, but the Olympics every four years. It gives you more purpose."
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.