Announcements came over the school’s PA system during home room. Reminders of Wagistanian (the yearbook) meetings, The Arrow (school newspaper) deadlines, the German Club candy sale (Gummi Bears and Toblerone, Yes Please!) and athletic team meetings. It was during some home room in the spring of eighth grade that I must have heard the announcement that badminton tryouts were taking place after school. So that afternoon I went to the Senior High gymnasium (at that time, Minneapolis Southwest was attended by seventh through twelfth graders with a glass hallway connecting the High School and the Junior High) with a lot of other girls.
Frenchy Rogers was my first Badminton coach, though she retired before I ever had her as a high school PE teacher. She ended her career with a standing record of Southwest High School having won every state tournament in badminton to that point. At that time the tournament was an invitational and included a mixed-doubles category. It was from her that I learned the fundamentals and strategy of the sport. Most people think of badminton as a summer picnic activity where you attempt to keep the birdie in the air as many volleys as possible. Well the first distinguishing difference between an amateur and veteran player is identifying the projectile as a shuttlecock and not a birdie. The game (when played well) is fast and placement of the shuttlecock in your opponent’s court is intended to be strategic. It’s a ballet of athleticism and acting, appearing to swing hard to drive a player to the depth of their court and gently tapping it inches over the net. I spent hours practicing serves with baskets of shuttlecocks, placing them between the top edge of the net and below the taut string four inches above it, suspended between the standards.
I initially played doubles but always preferred singles, where you took full credit for both your victories and losses. I did however love being part of a team; running to begin practice, bus rides to and from away matches. I loved the laughter and the camaraderie of teammates; the inside jokes, the witty banter and singing. There was a lot of singing on the bus, primarily quantity over quality. There was also a ritual with a purple (school color) haired troll that was kept in the traveling first aid kit but I wish not to divulge the details of it here, despite never having taken a sacred oath regarding it. It seems best to keep it among teammates.
Jan Peterson was my coach throughout my high school years. She was the mother of a schoolmate, the wife of my typing teacher (yes, that was a class and we used typewriters) and varsity Boys Hockey coach (it would be a decade before girls had organized teams) who went on to coach team USA in the Olympics. She was a patient yet competitive woman who kept us on track. She had a glint in her eye that let us know that she found most of our off-court antics pretty amusing.
I played competitively for five years and was a co-captain my senior year. I was never the best player but I enjoyed it immensely. The best girls, consistently were the Daline sisters, there were three of them and they clearly were genetically engineered for the game, as were the Swartout girls. The sport appeared to come effortlessly to them. They were all nice, humble and you could not help but develop skills simply by playing with them at practice. At matches your were proud they were part of your team, you felt a little sorry for their opponents. During that era in Minneapolis, our school had a lot more depth to our team than any of our competition.
The other thing I loved about badminton, was it was a sign of spring. Even though the Track and Field team were outside, there was something special after a hot afternoon in the gym to be walking home in shorts after practice when there was still snow on the ground. The beauty of the sport is that in theory you can play it for the rest of your life. While at St. Cloud State I took badminton as a class. The Mens basketball coach was the instructor and as a result many of the basketball players were in my class. Initially he had the few women in the class pair off and play doubles against each other. I was able to break away and play singles. He had set up the class in a tournament formation. After I had beaten every classmate the instructor asked if I was available to stay after class. He was confused as to how I had beaten his team members and he wanted to challenge me to a best two out of three. It only took me two. I never disclosed that I had any previous experience.
After my husband and I were married and moved back to the metropolitan area I signed us up for a community education badminton open-gym at Southwest. For a nominal fee we were granted gym access that was reminiscent of one night a week while I was in school, where you could just show up at the Junior High gym and play. After college, I had shattered my elbow in a freak accident and it took a long time to heal, it had been years since I had picked up a racket. I was newly pregnant and looking for a way to remain active. The game came back quickly, the strategy and technique. My husband would later tell people “she stood in one place and ran me all over the court”. We did not stay for the entire session. I instead ended up driving him to Fairview Southdale hospital because he was convinced he was having a heart attack. Tests and an overnight observation indicated that it was simply a “chest wall spasm”. It had been nearly fifteen years since I was lured to the gym by a home room announcement but Frenchy and Jan had trained me well, I still had it!