Shuttle Launch

After a few false starts, Howard Bach gets American badminton off the ground.

May 1, 2006

Photographer Seng Chen

Howard Bach, still dressed in his Yonex warm-ups, nervously scans the growing crowd. Spectators rush to find seats but do not sit—they’d rather stand and scream. The cacophonic sound of inflatable plastic applause sticks hammers through the arena as fans feverishly clap away. The stands are a blur of red, white and blue face paint. A young girl yells at a friend three seats away: “buy me nachos!” But the message is never received; the deafening roar of the crowd at Arrowhead Pond (Anaheim, CA) drowns it out.

Bach, badminton’s bad boy, turns away from all of this and puts on his headphones. Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time” neutralizes the frenzy as he slowly walks around the arena. Two eager fans approach, hoping to wish the stocky 26-year-old good luck. Strangely they stop midway, pause for a moment, and then quietly retract their steps. The icy, intense glare in his eyes says it all: Don’t talk to me. Leave me alone or I’ll punch your face in.

Bach barely got any sleep the night before. His throat is raw from yelling and his body aches from four consecutive days of playing. He needs to be alone, to clear his mind and mentally prepare for the most important match of his life. He walks to the player’s entrance in a zone, removes his warm-ups, and waits for the announcer to call his name. When he responds to the intro, the home crowd goes ballistic; chants of “U-S-A” grow louder with each step he takes toward the court. American fans from New York to Seattle are here to witness the unimaginable: the first U.S. team in history is one win away from a badminton World Championship.

Bach was only a spindly 9-year-old when he lost in the final of the Junior National Championships. When the flashes of racquets and blinding white streaks of the shuttlecock ceased, Bach stepped off the court with tears in his eyes and broke down. “It was the first time I cried,” Bach says, “I hated the feeling of losing.” His father rushed to comfort him like only a parent-coach can. Kneeling beside Bach, he softly said: “You have to work harder. You have to pay a price to be a champion.” So Bach went over errors, and used the defeat as motivation to capture the title the following year. At 11, he played in a tournament at University of California, Berkeley and embarrassed the Golden Bears’ top three players. “He was already very mature at a young age,” says his sister Carrie, “He wasn’t afraid. He was always thinking, figuring out how to outplay his opponents.”

To be fair, Bach’s dad, Sen Cam, had given him a little bit of a head start. Abandoning dreams of badminton glory, Sen Cam moved his family from Saigon to San Francisco’s Chinatown in search of a better life. With wife Amy, four daughters, and Bach, he started a sewing business and opened Olympic Laundry, a fitting name for the enterprise that would iron and tumble a future Olympian.

Sen Cam first took Bach to hit when he was 5. Although Bach’s dad was a national player in Vietnam with his eye on Olympic gold, he just hoped his son would enjoy badminton. “My dad never forced me to play,” Bach says, “But I knew he wanted me to be a champion.” So sandwiched between five and a half hours of folding hotel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at Olympic, Bach found time for daily practice.

There were no dedicated facilities for Bach to train in. Badminton is the second most watched sport in the world, played in more than 147 countries, but it ranks only a step above horseshoes in the U.S. Most Americans consider it a leisurely backyard barbeque pastime. In fact, on a competitive level, the sport takes surgical precision and split-second reflexes. The quarter-ounce shuttlecock, made of 16 goose feathers, travels upwards of 185 MPH; the average player runs a total of a mile-and-a-quarter during a match (sets to 15, best of three). Bach trained in poorly lit high school gyms where the shuttle was a dull blur and basketball took over in-season. He sometimes traveled across the San Francisco Bay Area with his dad to find playing time at more welcoming gyms. Late at night, Bach practiced moves in front of the mirror at home.

Richard Ng, a badminton pioneer and coach of 32 years, started training Bach when he was 9. “He is without a question the hardest working student I have ever had,” Richard says, “He was born with the hunger.”

But Bach had an appetite for more than badminton when puberty hit. At 13, Bach was playing cards and loitering the streets of Chinatown. He regularly cut class, carelessly abandoning the A’s he’d earned in grade school. He hung out with kids who shoplifted, broke into cars, and taught him how to pop open parking meters. In eighth grade, an angry parent told Sen Cam to keep Bach away from his son. One day in Chinatown, Bach was outside a convenience store when his friend was caught shoplifting. The storeowner quickly slammed the glass door shut and locked it. Bach watched helplessly from outside as the owner proceeded to kick the crap out of his buddy. Later, a friend, caught up in gang violence, was shot and killed. “Badminton saved my life,” says Bach, pausing for a moment to reflect. “I remember thinking I can’t go on like this. What if one day that happens to me? I decided it was time for a change.”

At 16, Bach got a second chance. Despite his street punk ways, the Chinatown badass had transformed into a kick ass adult-level badminton player. He took second in men’s doubles at the U.S. Olympic Festival in 1995 and was invited to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO. He jumped at the chance to escape his dead-end lifestyle.

In Colorado, Bach found himself on a new path. Far from chain-smoking friends and shifts by the washing machine, he focused on badminton. Bach befriended speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno and helped him incorporate badminton into his training regime, while committing unflinchingly to his own. At the end of five years, the 21-year-old unveiled quads thick as oak trees, bulging calves, a 36-inch vertical and a surprisingly powerful 5-foot-6, 165-pound frame. He benched 250, squatted 450, and slammed the bird down with the ferocity of Shaq at the rim.

By 2000, Bach and Mark Manha were the top ranked pair in North America. As the Sydney Olympics approached, a cocky 21-year-old Bach felt invincible, certain he would make the Olympic team. He didn’t. “It humbled me,” Bach says, “And taught me that there are no guarantees in life.” Bach was so frustrated, he went on an almost angry rampage, capturing a national singles title along with three national doubles titles and a Pan American Games gold with his new partner Kevin Han. When Athens rolled around, the 2004 Olympic committee did not hesitate to invite him.

Now was Bach’s time to shine. Asian countries had won 42 out of 46 badminton medals at the Olympics since it was added in 1992; American teams were considered sub par, laughable. Until now. The country was behind Bach. Reporters came knocking. He and Kevin played Katie Couric, Al Roker and Matt Lauer on a Today Show spot. People magazine named him one of the 50 Hottest Bachelors of 2004.

It should have been the time of his life. But Bach’s personal life sent him tumbling. The eight-hour training days strained his relationship with Penelope Salac, his girlfriend of 10 years, and they broke up. Then his father fell into a diabetic coma while traveling to Vietnam and was on the brink of death. Bach flew to Saigon right before the Olympics to be at his father’s bedside. Sen Cam later recovered, but the experience devastated Bach.

“That was the hardest year of my life,” Bach recalls, “All I had left was badminton.” He trained obsessively, hoping to salvage the year by bringing home a medal. But in Athens, he and Han didn’t even reach the quarterfinals. In the round of 16, Bach and Han let shots fall between them; they had no court chemistry. And Bach made service errors, missed easy shots and committed unforced errors. His head was clearly somewhere else. The pair lost quickly. “I felt I had let myself down, my family and my country. I was devastated,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m done. What do I do now?’”

In a sport that offers little fame and no financial rewards, it’s easy to throw in the towel. Bach’s contemporaries already had. His old partner, Mark Manha, followed in his father’s footsteps to be a commercial airline pilot. Kevin Han retired after Athens to work as a computer engineer. Others turned to coaching, returned to college, became police officers and lawyers. Bach was the last man standing, so he decided to sit. He tried to be positive about leaving badminton, reasoning that he’d have more time to enjoy his hobbies: guitar, clubbing, and learning Cantonese and Mandarin. But he was 25 and had no college degree. The future looked grim, until Tony Gunawan came into the picture.

Gunawan, a badminton legend in Indonesia, left his native country to study computer science in California. When he got there, he asked Bach to be his partner. “I felt like I had nowhere to go but up,” says Bach. Retirement was no longer an option. “I told him to take more risks and to play with more confidence,” Gunawan says.

After less than a year, they were ranked 13th in the world. Bach trained seven hours a day, six days a week. He did plyometric exercises to add explosiveness to his jumps and lifted like Schwarzenegger to add power to his shots. He worked with a sports psychologist to enhance his mental toughness. The 2005 World Badminton Championships, the Super Bowl of the sport with 320 players from over 50 countries, was within reach. And this time, Bach really was ready.

It’s the third and deciding set in the men’s doubles final. Bach’s warm-ups have long since been shed. His headphones are tucked away somewhere safe. But the noise of Arrowhead Pond has not let up. Team USA won the first set 15-11, only to lose the second 10-15 to Indonesia. Officials pause the third set to sweep broken feathers and drops of sweat from the court, Team USA is down 9-11; the Indonesians are four points away from gold.

When play resumes Bach jumps to smash the bird but misses and falls backwards. He drops his head and pauses to gulp some much-needed oxygen. He’s tired but cannot rest. The shuttle sails high to the frontcourt; Bach gets enough air to send the bird down for an unreturnable smash. This time, he stumbles forward on the followthrough. The crowd erupts. Bach inhales a deep breath, closes his eyes and screams at the top of his lungs, pumping both fists in the air, and invoking the badminton bad boy who was slapped with two prior warnings for on-court antics.

“I’m on the court with three legends, this thug no one’s ever heard of,” Bach says, “Skillwise they’re better than me. I have to contribute my energy, my heart and my soul.”

Team USA rallies back and five exhausting points later, Gunawan and Bach are a notch away from a championship. Gunawan serves. Bach’s legs move left while his arms swing right, he looks like he might twist himself in two. Jump smash. Jump smash. Drop. Drive. Smash. Bach moves like a pinball, but the bird keeps coming back over the net.

After a 48-shot rally, Bach smashes the shuttle, and the guy across the net falters. On return, the bird hits the tape and falls to the ground like wounded prey. Game, USA. The Pond goes nuts. No one’s getting nachos now.

Months later, Bach still has trouble absorbing the historic win. He digs under his bed to exhume his gold medal, wrapped in a crumpled piece of white printer paper. The knock-you-in-the-face intensity has momentarily disappeared, but the impact of a homegrown badminton superstar is permanent. Howard Bach has etched his name into badminton legend with one, long, hard-fought rally. 

Calvin Shih is a commercial real estate appraiser who dreams of writing the great Asian American novel in a remote European village. He can smash the bird like Howard Bach—or at least pretend to. Seng Chen is Hyphen’s Director of Photography.

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