Succeed or stumble, Eva Lee makes it her mission not to lug any psychological baggage from one tournament to the next. No extra pressure that way — and no emotional hangover.
Still, some history simply won’t be subdued.
For the USA Badminton team, this weekend’s official start to the 17th Pan American Games in Toronto is a jumping-off point, the first big international competition in a yearlong scramble to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. And no one’s a better example of how that Olympic vision can crystallize at this event than Eva Lee.
This was, in effect, her coming out party — or a little more than that.
Eight years ago at the Pan Ams — in Rio, coincidentally — Lee improbably dominated the competition. In the three previous Pan Ams, U.S. women had won just one gold medal in badminton; Lee won three — singles, doubles and mixed doubles — in a matter of a few days.
“I wasn’t really expecting to medal at all,” she recalled. “My first Pan Am was in 2003, and it didn’t turn out so well. But for some reason in 2007, I felt really relaxed. There were no expectations, no nothing. Every medal came as a surprise. In fact, none of us expected to win anything, and almost everyone medaled.”
Things have changed. The U.S. team goes to Toronto with a legitimate shot at three golds and a half-dozen medals — and is aiming, for the first time, to be represented in all five Olympic badminton events in Rio.
And Lee, just 20 years old back then, is now appearing in her fourth Pan Ams — a veteran presence on a U.S. team that’s seen considerable churn, especially among the elite men.
“I’m becoming a dinosaur,” she joked on her Facebook page.
Mohan Subramaniam, USA Badminton’s director of coaching and high performance, put it more tactfully.
“Some of the older players from the last two or three Olympics retired and moved into coaching more,” he said. “Eva is kind of the last of that group, and she can be very helpful to the others.”
Not that she hasn’t gone though her own evolution.
The daughter of badminton-playing parents, Lee took up the sport at 11 and was winning national age-group titles within a year — and found herself on that first Pan Am team at age 16. Success came at a price: Her family relocated to Southern California in 2001 so she could be closer to her training base at the Orange County Badminton Club, and in time she put college on hold to pursue her Olympic aspirations full-time.
It paid off. She made it to Beijing in 2008 in both singles and women’s doubles, and marching into the Bird’s Nest stadium during the Opening Ceremony remains a thrill for the Hong Kong-born Lee.
And that was going to be it.
“The Olympics were my goal — I wasn’t planning on continuing to play,” she said. “I was just going to school again and resuming a normal life. I played for fun — local tournaments once in a while, and at the club with friends and family, but I wasn’t training to compete.”
There would also be surgeries to repair an ankle and an MCL that took her out of singles competition. But that didn’t stop Paula Obanana from seeking Lee out as a doubles partner for an Olympic run of their own in 2012.
They came up just short of qualifying for London, but the near miss was enough to keep them pushing toward Rio.
“The Canadian team that qualified in our place made the medal playoffs (in London),” Lee said. “We’d beaten them at a couple of tournaments, and done well against some other top teams to give us the idea that we have a chance to getting into the top 10 and medaling for the United States.”
A silver medal at the K&D Graphics and Yonex Grand Prix Badminton Championships left them ranked 22nd in the world for 2014, and tops in the Pan American zone. They’re currently 19th and in solid position to claim an Olympic spot — providing they keep up the pace through the qualifying period that runs until May.
“We’re a good team,” Lee said. “Paula’s a back player and I like to play in the front court, and she’s strong where I’m weak and I’m stronger where she’s weaker, so that works out well for us.”
Lee will also team with Howard Shu in the Pan Am mixed doubles. She won silver in that event in 2011, and a bronze with Obanana.
“This has been a good tournament for me,” Lee said. “I think it can be good for me — for all of us — again this year.”
John Blanchette is a sportswriter from Spokane, Washington. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.