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2016 Olympics: Team USA's growing badminton program bolstered by UCLA Bruins

Alex Espinoza/Pac-12 Networks

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Team USA’s badminton program is ascending to new heights and it wouldn’t be possible without a trio of UCLA Bruins.

For the first time in Olympic history, the Americans will compete in all five badminton disciplines (men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles, mixed doubles) and will feature a Team USA-record seven athletes. Of those seven, Howard Shu (men’s singles), Iris Wang (women’s singles) and Jamie Subandhi (mixed singles) are all connoisseurs of UCLA’s famed 8-clap.

“I know there’s a lot of Bruins out here in the entire delegation, not just us three out of seven,” Shu said. “I think there’s close to 40 Bruins out here. UCLA is where champions are made, right? So, we have a big supporting group out here. It’s neat to have alumni out here and to be able to connect with people on a college level.”

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For all three of the badminton Bruins, this will represent their first Olympics. So Shu couldn’t help but chat it up with fellow Orange County kid and NBA star Klay Thompson during the opening ceremony, or snap a photo with Kevin Durant in their matching Team USA getups. Shu said it’s been a surreal experience so far, and he hasn’t even stepped on the court yet.

“When I walked out of that tunnel at the opening ceremony -- you look left, you look right and you look in front of you -- and everyone is in the same uniform,” Shu said. “Everyone has USA on their chest and on their back. That’s the moment where it really hits you, at least it was the moment for me. I know that it’s going to be another emotional moment when I first get on the court. Because when I walk out, it’s not just going to be me and my racket. I’ll walk out knowing I’ll have my friends and my family behind me and that I’ll be representing 300 million at home watching.”

 

Getting ready to walk the Opening Ceremony with all the amazing athletes!!

A photo posted by Howard Shu (@shusonmyfeet) on

While it might be Wang’s first time competing in the summer games, it’s not her first time being in the Olympic environment. She and her sister, Rena, tried to make the 2012 games in London as a doubles team for Team USA but fell short of qualification. Still, Rena made the team as a singles player and Iris got to see the training up close from London as she was in town competing for her own tournament.

“I got to see the process and do it with her,” Wang said. “It prepared me well for this Olympic experience.”

The Wang sisters also had the opportunity to train with Tony Gunawan, who won a badminton doubles gold medal for Indonesia in 2000. Though Wang has since moved on to train with another coach, Alistair Casey, she notes that she still gets advice from Gunawan and even practices with him on occasion.

“I play singles with him sometimes and he still beats me. I’m like, ‘What the heck? What’s your problem?’” Wang said with a laugh. “I think every time he’s says something, I have something to learn. He teaches me also a lot about life after badminton. I think he just has a lot of experience. I talked to him before I came here and he told me, ‘Just go for the gold.’”

[Related content: Follow the Pac-12 to Rio]

Throughout the history of USA badminton, there has never been a podium winner. But since the reinstatement of the sport as an Olympic competition in 1992, badminton has been growing in the states. Eva Lee, who also competed for Team USA badminton at the Beijing games in 2008 and is back on the team in Rio, said it’s obvious that the sport has been developing back home the past few years.

Likewise, Shu said he thinks the program is on the rise in America, and he’s hoping a good U.S. performance can help grow the sport even more. Shu, Wang and Subandhi are all alumni of the UCLA badminton club, which they attended weekly to stay fresh.

“It’s amazing to be a part of this team,” Shu said. “This is the first time that we’ve done all the events, and hopefully, like Iris said, we’re getting closer and closer to the podium. It’s growing exponentially and hopefully in the next 10 years we’ll be on that podium.”

For Shu, he has more motivation than his individual aspirations. He picked up the game as an 8-year-old, taking up after his father, who played recreationally. But when he dons the red, white and blue of Team USA., Shu can’t help but think about Taiwan, the native country of his parents.

“When they came over the U.S. and intended to have children, they told themselves that they just really wanted to give us opportunities,” Shu said. “My mom always wanted to be a track and field runner and she was never able to do that. For me to finally be here and be able to finally compete as part of Team USA, I feel like I’m literally their embodiment of their American dream.”

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