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06-01-2004, 03:22 PM #1
NEWS : Badminton star Kevin Han has survived some rough times
An Olympic journey
Badminton star Kevin Han has survived some rough times
Posted: Thursday May 27, 2004 5:39PM; Updated: Friday May 28, 2004 11:52AM
On this year's U.S. Olympic team, you'll find a broad mix of cultures, ambitions and life stories that symbolize the American melting pot. Kevin Han, the greatest badminton player in U.S. history, is one example of this. He traveled by bike, sweated in kitchens, often got lost and didn't understand what evolved in front of him. The experience toughened his resolve, which has carried him to seven national titles. This summer, he'll compete in his third Olympics and first as a doubles player, with partner Howard Bach.
In Nov. 1989, when he was 17, Han left his native China for New York. Eight years earlier, Kevin's father, Liang Nian, had traveled to the States after splitting with Kevin's mother, Xu Yiling, who remained in Shanghai. Kevin, the No. 6 ranked badminton player in China at the time, and a high school grad with excellent grades, wanted to re-unite with his father and make a new life for himself in the mysterious land of opportunity he had read about.
"My father was nothing more than a memory for me at that point," Han said. "I didn't want to go through life like that."
Han also wanted to pursue his sporting career and his Olympic aspirations, though he had no idea what badminton opportunities existed in the U.S.
He was in for a rude awakening. Not until he arrived did he realize his father was without a job, lived in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood and didn't have the means to help Kevin continue his education or practice badminton.
Kevin took a job at a Chinese restaurant in New York called Taipei and began busing tables.
"My first English words," he said, "were: 'Do you want more water?' and 'Are you finished?'" For six months, Han made $700 a month, including tips and pitched in to help his father.
Last week, Han and I went looking for Taipei and searching for his past. As we headed east, towards Third Avenue, he began to recognize buildings he hadn't seen in 10 years. "I delivered there, there and there," he said. "That building, I'll never forget, because I tried to understand someone's directions and ended up walking into the women's bathroom."
I could see the anticipation in Han's step as we turned the last corner he hadn't walked in a decade. "This is it," he said. "If it's still there . . ." It wasn't. The storefront had been converted into an Off-Track Betting establishment that had since closed, itself. Now the building was vacant, awaiting new tenants.
"It doesn't look like anyone's been there in a long time," Han said. "Boy, this place ... we had three party rooms. You went up this narrow staircase, right through there. At night the upstairs was packed, just packed. I was just lucky I found something like that to keep me going. There was so much going on, you just didn't want to mess up. It's funny to look in after looking out and not knowing the future every day."
As we settled into another Chinese restaurant, near Kevin's original place of works, he told me that the future had begun to wear on him, after self-doubt crept in and he was still without a place to play badminton.
"It was the worst time of my life," he said. "I thought: This is not the way I want to live my life. Over here I'm nobody. I have no friends, I hate my job. I'm not learning, I'm not using my skills from badminton or from school. What kind of life is it here? But if I went back, I'd just be a coward. I had to keep trying."
Han switched briefly to a job in another restaurant that was located in Lower Manhattan, amidst low-income housing and gangland turfwars. Then he took on a construction job. After a full year, Han happened upon a friend from Shanghai who had also moved to Queens. The friend helped him find a badminton club in the borough, and soon Han was re-energized.
"I was like a new man once I started playing again," he said. "I was still so uncomfortable with the language and the lifestyle. But when I played I was comfortable. I was happy."
He was also successful. Han started winning local tournaments and soon had some USA badminton officials offering to help him. He took English as a second language and within a year, he moved to Michigan, where he studied computers at the Marquette University and started ascending the national rankings. Not surprisingly, his favorite television show was Growing Pains.
Han earned his citizenship in 1994, the same year he won his first U.S. title and was named USA Badminton's Athlete of the Year. Two years later, when he qualified for his first Olympic team, he met Cindy Shi, also a badminton player and Chinese immigrant. They lived for a few years in Colorado Springs, Col., where Kevin trained and earned a degree from UCCS in Information Systems in December 1999. The next year, he reached the round of 16 at the Sydney Olympics, a significant achievement for U.S. badminton players.
These days, he and Cindi are now married, living in Orange, Calif., near the Olympic Training Center, and have two children, Ethan, 20 months, and Emily, three months. They speak Mandarin at home, so their children will have an appreciation for both cultures. As an elite level U.S. athlete in a little known sport, Kevin earns roughly $10,000-$15,000 a year from badminton, but holds down a regular job at a Home Depot in Orange, Calif. He works in the support center, handling customer inquiries about computers. The store gives him liberal time off to train and attend competitions.
He said he couldn't be sure if this would be his last Olympics, though he knows he is slowing down. It is a sport for quick wrists that propel shuttlecocks at 200 miles an hour and quick feet to chase them down. Ahead of him, Han has a life as a father and computer engineer, but he also wants to squeeze every last serve and volley he can from his body.
"It is such a privilege to play this game," he said, as we opened our fortune cookies at the end of our meal. "I wouldn't change what I've been through."
Han smiled as he opened his fortune cookie and the words of wisdom. They read: "A golden egg of opportunity falls into your lap."
Sports Illustrated staff writer Brian Cazeneuve covers Olympic sports for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.
Last edited by seven; 06-01-2004 at 03:25 PM.
06-01-2004, 06:06 PM #2
Good article. It looks like Kevin has battled and overcome much adversity and challenge in his life. To be where he is now is, from where he started is certainly an achievement.
And, I never knew that he was #6 ranked in China before he went to the States!!!
06-01-2004, 07:50 PM #3
Excellent article. Thanks!
06-01-2004, 08:08 PM #4
A very well written and enjoyable read. It certainly helps to have a background story and history associated to some of these faces that we see on court.
The article says he was 17 in 1989..that means he is at least 31 years old maybe already 32! Is he one of the oldest competitors in Olympic badminton? I think there is a Thai player who is about the same age competing.
I may be wrong but I thought US produced some "home grown" badminton players who set some hard to beat winning record. Must be back in 50's or 60's. Don't quote me on that
06-01-2004, 08:20 PM #5
Great article. I never knew Kevin had such an illustrious life. This would be good reading material for badminton fans.
The greatest player ever from US? Well, if you include immigrants as well as those who played for the country before, I'd still say Tony G for he was World and Olympic Champion!
Yet, Kevin is on his own a remarkable man for being able to make ends meet with sheer will and determination. As said in the article "I was like a new man once I started playing again," he said. "I was still so uncomfortable with the language and the lifestyle. But when I played I was comfortable. I was happy." he spoke something that is truly echoed in BF, badminton is a language that all understands on the court.
06-01-2004, 10:26 PM #6
The greatest American badminton player of all time was David Freeman. He won the All England in 1949. Not only that, he also swept away the best players from Denmark and Malaysia, humiliating the great Wong Peng Soon 15-4, 15-1 in the the Thomas Cup and a similar one-sided affair in the finals of the Danish Open.
You may not be aware of it, the U.S. was a major badminton power in the early days and a major and serious contender-unlike their recent perfunctory appearance in Jarkata-in 4 Thomas Cup ties from 1948-9 to 1957-8. After this, which saw the emergence of Indonesia as a badminton power, U.S. badminton disappeared from the radar screen.
06-01-2004, 10:31 PM #7
Actually I do know about the US being a dominant force in the past but was too clouded by Yang Yang, Icuk, Morten Frost, Misbun and Park JB to take notice... I guess I'm a little to young to remember anything beyond Rudy Hartono.
06-02-2004, 12:31 AM #8
great articles! wish i could write like that kevin han is a good player i saw him playing against china in thomas cup preliminary match and he was really good. it's just maybe he could not get intensive training in the U.S. like in China.
06-02-2004, 02:56 AM #9
He has the skills but is too old.
Originally Posted by Chesire Cat
06-02-2004, 03:03 AM #10Originally Posted by Pete LSD
Yah, i think his chance is better in MD like he had chosen.
06-02-2004, 12:00 PM #11
I saw him play doubles few times and he looks muscular but sort of bulky in movement. Definitely a bit slow compared to younger players. I guess it is due to his age, he is over 30s now.
06-02-2004, 12:35 PM #12
Great stuffs, Never give up and live your dreams! He is a person that live his dreams.. and focus in his goals.
06-02-2004, 01:33 PM #13
It's easier to focus on goals when there's not much of a choice. Either go back to China, or tough it out and strive to succeed.
06-02-2004, 10:46 PM #14
His life could be much better in China.
Originally Posted by wood_22_chuck
06-03-2004, 12:19 AM #15
Kevin's 1st badminton club in Queens, NY was actually close to my home. I am currently playing in another club which is fairly close to that one. Of course, the gap in skill is like "from heaven to hell"
Another great story about "fight to survive" and "fullfill ur dream".
06-05-2004, 04:06 AM #16Originally Posted by wood_22_chuck
Not to discredit Kevin Han though. He's definitely been through a lot and I wish him success.
06-05-2004, 02:34 PM #17
To further refine that thought ... it's probably not really the actual physical environment, but the perceived environment ... otherwise there'll be tons of upward social mobility. Which also explains how the upper-class still strive for even more success. A balance of physical environment and perceived, methinks.
Even if returning to China was actually "okay" for Kevin Han, perhaps it wasn't even a choice at all for Kevin.
Thanks for the shout-out
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