Lee finds solace at school after whirlwind qualifying tour

Feb. 02, 2009, 11:46 a.m. (ET)

Lee finds solace at school after whirlwind qualifying tour

By Chrös McDougall

Eva Lee was one of the few 22-year-olds who just couldn't wait to go back to school last fall.

The American badminton player had to take a year and a half break from school to travel the world in a grueling qualifying effort for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After competing in Beijing, Lee could not have been happier to restart her studies last fall at the University of California-Irvine.

"Basically we were eating, sleeping and dreaming badminton," Lee said. "...We couldn't really relax because it was just really hard to make the ranking points and everything."

In badminton, the athletes have to play in tournament after tournament in order to boost their world rankings, which ultimately are what qualifies them for the Olympics. Lee qualified and competed in the singles and doubles divisions in Beijing before finally getting to take a break from badminton.

"Traveling is just really tiring to begin with," Lee said. "...Sometimes there are two tournaments at the same time and you have to decide which one is more beneficial, and you have to stay ahead of certain people. That was just really stressful for us."

During the qualifying period the Orange, Calif., native jetted around the world, spending one week in Europe and the next in Asia. Most of the tournaments are on those continents, but Lee also competed in New Zealand and at the Pan American Games in Brazil.

"It was like I could count the number of days I was home but not the number that I was on a plane or in Asia or something," a relaxed Lee said during the early part of her second semester back at school.

Lucky for Lee, she loves the game and even plays as a hobby when not competing.

"I just have fun out there when I play," she said.

Lee moved to California from Hong Kong when she was approximately 6 years old. She started playing badminton five years later when she was at the gym with her parents and just started hitting with the other kids.

After high school Lee attended the University of California-San Diego, where she temporarily gave up badminton to focus on school.

But that didn't last long. "My mom told me, ‘School?you can always go back to it. But badminton?once you pass a certain age, you won't be able to compete anymore,'" Lee said.

In 2007 Lee won the Triple Crown-singles, doubles and mixed doubles-at the Pan Am Games, and a year after that she was competing at the Beijing Olympics. Lee now has hopes to be the first American to win an Olympic medal in the sport, which she could do at the 2012 London Olympics.

"If I have the chance to go to 2012, that would be the goal," Lee said.

In the meantime, Lee is enjoying a more relaxed schedule and focusing on her education. She hopes to graduate in 2010 with a degree in biology and then possibly go back to school to become a pediatrician.

"A lot of people told me that it was going to be horrible and that I would not be able to adjust to reading and doing school again," Lee said. "But I was doing badminton for so long that going back to school was a really good change of pace for me. I felt kind of normal."

Lee lives a relatively quiet life in Southern California. Aside from being listed on UC-Irvine's athletics Web site, the Olympic badminton player remains mostly unrecognized walking around campus?and that's how she likes it.

"I don't play to be in the spotlight so for me it doesn't really matter," Lee said.

Now that Lee is back home and back in school, she is finding some more time to relax, hang out with friends and focus on her studies. Still, when she has the time and energy, she is back playing badminton.

Lee teaches juniors and trains at the Orange County Badminton Club, where most of the top athletes in the U.S. train, including all five 2008 U.S. Olympians. At the beginning of January, she competed in the team trials for the Sudirman Cup, where she won the mixed doubles competition and placed second in women's doubles.

The next competition Lee takes part in likely will be the U.S. National Championships in the spring.

In the life of an elite badminton player, the game never really stops. You have to build up your ranking by playing in smaller tournaments, which qualifies you to play in bigger tournaments, which eventually, if you're good enough, qualifies you for the Olympics.

After one qualifying campaign, Lee knows how hard it is going to be. During the most intense year of qualifying, she went from tournament to tournament around the world, playing in more than 100 games.

"Every qualifying period is just as stressful," Lee said. "There are so many things you have to do."

But in the end, playing in front of the world at the Olympics is what it's all about.

"Being there makes you feel like all the work you've done to get there is worth it," Lee said. "You're on...center stage, and everyone is watching you and it makes you want to try hard and really do the best that you can."

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc.