Badminton’s yearlong Olympic qualifying odyssey began in May, but for the United States team, the Pan American Games is the first major test — and for a sport in which the United States is still seeking its first Olympic medal, ambitions are high.
Team USA players are ranked first among Pan Am zone competitors in three of the five events. The podium potential hardly stops there, though host Canada will once again be a rival to be reckoned with in the five-day competition that begins July 11 at Toronto’s Markham Pan Am Centre.
“In the last few years, the entire level of competition in Pan Am countries has improved,” said Howard Shu, the top-ranked U.S. men’s singles player, “but I think everyone on our team has a chance to medal in any of their disciplines.”
That kind of showing would be a boost to U.S. hopes of having a representative in each of the five Olympic badminton events next year in Rio de Janeiro. Points accumulated at specified international events until May 2016 will determine the Olympic field.
“We’ve never had (entrants in) all five before,” said Mohan Subramaniam, USA Badminton’s director of coaching and high performance. “But I think it’s very possible this time.”
In Toronto, the United States has a chance to assert itself in doubles in particular, bringing the top-ranked pairs in all three events. That’s also where there’s some veteran presence in 28-year-old doubles specialist Eva Lee, whose big international breakthrough came with a triple crown win in singles, doubles and mixed doubles at the 2007 Pan Am Games.
This time, she’ll team with Shu in mixed doubles and Paula Lynn Obanana in women’s pairs, in which they’re the top-ranked team in the Pan Am zone and 18th globally.
“They have beaten some of the top-10 players in the world before,” Subramaniam said, “so the talent is there.”
Phillip Chew, a dominant player as a junior, is also positioned for the podium. The 21-year-old is part of two top-25 world pairs, teaming with Sattawat Pongnairat in men’s doubles and Jamie Subandhi in mixed. Both teams are ranked first in their respective divisions in the Pan Am zone. The U.S. Pan Am trials in February was Subandhi’s first competition after a December car accident, and though she pulled out of singles after winning the mixed doubles, she should be ready to compete in both events in Toronto.
She’ll be joined in singles by 21-year-old Iris Wang, the silver medalist at the 2011 Pan Am Games in doubles with her sister, Rena. Not eligible this Olympic cycle due to citizenship issues is Beiwen Zhang, who at No. 13 in the world is the top-ranked U.S. player.
In men’s singles, Pongnairat won two three-set thrillers over Shu and Bjorn Seguin to claim the trials title, but it’s Shu with a narrow inside track for the U.S. Olympic spot, just on the outskirts of the world top 50.
“But we’re all really close,” said Shu, “and if you take your foot off the pedal, someone might creep up from behind.”
Only Lee among the eight Americans has Olympic experience, with several veterans having retired after the last cycle. That churn has opened the door for younger players such as Shu, Chew and Wang.
“Internationally, we have a way to go to reach where those guys were — some of them were top 20 in the world,” Shu said. “But we’re improving steadily, I think, and we have a lot of room to grow.”