From Mexico to Stanford: One Chicago Student Finds Extraordinary Success Through Badminton

May 04, 2016, 5:21 p.m. (ET)

There was a time not long ago when Danna Gallegos, the breakout star of high school badminton in Chicago, didn’t even know it was a sport.

Arriving from Mexico in the middle of her eighth grade year, the soft spoken fourteen year-old faced a vast and unfamiliar cultural landscape as she began high school in America’s third largest city.  So the natural athlete found refuge in sports at Golder College Prep, one of 17 campuses of Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools.  Gallegos earned a spot on the varsity volleyball team before the school year even began, and word quickly spread to the coaches of other programs: this young lady can play.

Yet few could imagine that just weeks into her freshman year and barely twelve months since arriving to her new home, Gallegos would commit wholeheartedly to an unfamiliar athletic calling, seizing a new opportunity with all of the intellectual curiosity that would come to characterize her future academic and athletic success.  Danna Gallegos had stumbled upon one of Chicago’s only high school badminton programs, and something about this new sport grabbed the young freshman. 

Four years later, having done more than any other student-athlete in recent memory to raise the profile of badminton in Chicago Public Schools, the high school senior now looks to cap her remarkable run with a final trip to Junior Nationals this summer.  And as the first in her class academically, Gallegos will then continue on to what might be considered, even by her lofty standards, the most impressive accomplishment to date: matriculation to Stanford University in fall. 

That Gallegos would have such a storied academic and athletic career is obvious in hindsight to those closest to her badminton life.  Tina Lulla, Gallegos’ former chemistry teacher and advisor at Golder, pushed the young student to pick up a racket after seeing her determination, intelligence, and athleticism firsthand, in addition to her focus and academic strength in the classroom.  Lulla founded the first badminton team in the city of Chicago in 2005 and brought the sport to Golder in 2008.

“It was quickly apparent that Danna was not only a top student, but a top athlete as well,” said Lulla.  “I saw her success in volleyball and knew that badminton would be an athletic pursuit in which she could excel.  I also knew that the sport would provide her with unique social experiences of traveling around the state with her team to represent the city of Chicago.  I had no idea that she would ultimately travel around the country to do the same.”

Gallegos took to the sport instantly.  Despite circumstances that forced the team to practice in hallways and travel inordinately far for competitions, in badminton she found an outlet that immediately shaped her new American life. 

“Since it was a sport rarely played in the city and especially rare to my ethnic group, badminton became my own little escape,” said Gallegos.  It was a sport that she could play to “relieve stress at the same time that [she] explored a totally new community and made friends with other nationalities.”

Even more impressive to Lulla and other Golder teachers was the balance and energy that Gallegos brought to all facets of her high school life.  Instead of badminton distracting Gallegos from the classroom, it seemed only to enhance her ability.  Now on track to graduate as valedictorian of the class of 2016, she approached every challenge of the last four years with the focus and work ethic she shows on the court.

Overcoming some of these challenges required intense and long-term commitment.  After a successful season her freshman year, she sought additional after-school instruction from the newest coach of the team.  Fortunately for Gallegos and Golder’s entire badminton program, that coach was Shannon Pohl, former USA #1 ranked women’s singles player and 2012 USA Badminton Developmental Coach of Year.  Gallegos began taking private lessons several times per week at the Shannon Pohl Badminton Academy in suburban Vernon Hills, subsidizing costs by working open gym whenever possible as part of a hectic training and academic schedule.  Leaning on the advanced instruction, Gallegos triumphantly qualified her junior year for the State Championship out of over 90 badminton teams in Illinois – the first individual student-athlete from her high school to qualify for any State athletic competition and the first badminton player from a Chicago Public School to attend since at least 1997.

Never settling, Gallegos aimed higher both academically and athletically.  In 2015, she earned the Vittum Human Spirit Award, given to one student at each of the Noble Network’s 17 high school campuses that best exemplifies the character and desire to influence the world in positive ways.  Later that same year, Gallegos traveled to compete in her first USA Badminton Junior Nationals Championship.  Now, with the close of her senior season approaching, Gallegos is more dominant than ever, poised to return to Junior Nationals this summer and on to Stanford University in the fall.

Heading off to college and the West Coast in just a few short months, her foundation is, without a doubt, reliably strong.  As a Triple Impact Scholarship winner, academic leader, and athletic champion at Golder, the legacy that Gallegos built and her commitment to badminton will follow her beyond high school and Chicago. 

When applying to Stanford, Gallegos, like all applicants, had to submit a personal statement describing an individual journey of growth and self-reflection.  As she thought of the whirlwind of the last four years and the rich tapestry of human experience to draw from, Gallegos faced an important decision.  What does as an immigrant, Chicago public school student, and young woman choose to write that would best explain the depth of tremendous personal investment necessary to succeed at one of the world’s top universities?  For Danna Gallegos, the best answer lay in the never-ending pursuit of personal excellence in her chosen sport: badminton.  Stanford University must have agreed – acceptance came quickly.

And now, racket and shuttle in hand, Chicago’s finest high school badminton player travels westward to chase ever higher dreams, her thoughts never far from the school, community, and team she calls home.