Iggy Yee runs the Cincinnati Badminton Club, a recreational badminton group that plays three days a week in Reading. (Photo by B. Walpole)
CINCINNATI - The gym was hot. Maybe not the August, dog-days-of-summer, Cincinnati swelter. But not far off.
On the court, the men’s hair was matting in salty clumps. Sweat stains started to show through their shirts. One guy, Dave Turner, wasn’t too proud to admit, “You see this? I’m absolutely dripping!” his British accent booming across the floor.
So why not turn on the air conditioning and cool down the gym a little? These guys refuse. They’re members of the Cincinnati Badminton Club, gathered to play three hours of badminton on a June night in the Readin’s Haffey Fieldhouse.
The air conditioning would be nice, but it affect the flight of the feather shuttles the club uses for its games. So the club members soldier on through the heat, sweat stains and all.
That’s just how dedicated they are.
“I’ve been playing badminton for 40 years,” said Turner, a long-time CBC regular. “It’s an absolutely wonderful game.”
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So why not turn on the air conditioning and cool down the gym a little? These guys refuse. They’re members of the Cincinnati Badminton Club, gathered to play three hours of badminton on a June night in Reading's Haffey Fieldhouse.
Definitely not tennis
The game features players--singles or doubles--standing on opposite sides of a five-foot-tall net. They use small, round racquets to strike back and forth a shuttle, a piece of cork with feathers jutting out in a cone-shaped plumage.
The scoring is similar to ping pong or tennis in that players earn points when their opponent fails to successfully return a shot. Games typically last until one side earns 21 points.
Peter Monaco, president of the University of Cincinnati Badminton Club, stops the tennis comparisons there, though.
“Tennis is sort of the opposite of badminton in every way you can imagine,” he said.
Tennis players swing their elbows out to generate power, Monaco explained, whereas a badminton swing is more about flicking the wrist. The path of the shuttlecock also is unique. Most racquet sports take aim at a ball on a horizontal trajectory, while badminton’s shuttles usually fly vertically.
Monaco and the badminton club at UC use plastic shuttles. The players at Haffey use feather shuttles because they fly better than the plastic ones. They’re also more expensive and don’t last as long.
Most players sport Yonix brand, badminton-specific shoes that grip the court with gum rubber soles. They’re not using hand-me-down wooden racquets either, instead favoring those of the ultra-lightweight graphite variety. “It’s an expensive sport,” said Subba Maddela, another frequent CBC player. “It’s freaking expensive.”
The story of a game
Badminton began in the 19th Century in India and quickly spread among the British colonies. No surprise then that many of the Cincinnati Badminton Club members hail from those parts of the world.
“Badminton is like a passion,” Maddela said. “At least for Indians, Asians.”
Problem is, it’s difficult to find many places in Cincinnati to play. The Haffey Field House courts have badminton court lines on the floor, which is rare. The Cincinnati Badminton Club plays three days a week, with an additional three morning sessions for a seniors group. It’s proven to be an oasis of sorts for a wide range of badminton lovers in the area.
Iggy Yee moved from Jamaica to Cincinnati in the 1960s when he received a scholarship to attend Xavier University. He grew up playing soccer and cricket but took to badminton when the club was based at Cincinnati Country Day School.
He hasn’t stopped playing, and now in his 60s, he looks like he could pass for 40-- good health he attributes a lot to badminton.
“The fitness level,” Yee said. “You look at the body shapes here. Not a lot of heavy people. It’s for the fun, and for the fitness.”
Yee is the de facto leader of the Cincinnati Badminton Club. The group moved from Country Day to the Haffey Field House more than a decade ago and continues to go strong.
“I probably get one to two inquiries a month,” Yee said. “A lot of students. When foreign students come in and they’re looking for somewhere to play in the states, they find us.”
Yee often takes time to help the less experienced players get up to speed.
“I like to promote the sport,” he said. “I help the new players. What we’re really proud of is the young guys.”
Getting newcomers into the game
One such newcomer is Yasen Boshnakov, who arrived in town from Bulgaria in 2000. Boshnakov has played volleyball for a long time, but last December his rec league had a week off between winter sessions.
“It was right before Christmas,” Boshnakov said. “I didn’t want to stay idle at home. So I said, ‘What can I do? What can I do?’”
The answer, as it turns out, was badminton. Boshnakov found the CBC online and decided to give it a shot. He enjoyed his experience so much, he’s been back each week for nearly six months, introducing five friends to the club along the way. He still doesn’t think he’s quite good enough to compete against the club’s top players, but he says he has improved a lot.
“Iggy works a lot with me when we have time,” Boshnakov said. “He shows me how to move my feet, how to hit, all the tricks.”
And now, one of the three courts at Haffey often features four Bulgarians
Players from near and far
Shantanu Joshi seemingly was destined to play badminton since birth. After all, he grew up in Poona, India--one of the cities where the sport first gained popularity in the 1800s.
“I played at state level, district level,” Joshi said. “I played at my university.”
Two months ago, Joshi moved to Oakley from India to take a job with Koki Solder America. It was a big move: new job, new city, new culture. His research into the area focused on one thing, though.
“The first thing I looked for was not apartment but a badminton club,” Joshi said. “I’m very passionate about badminton. I try to come to every session.”
While Joshi brought his love of badminton with him from India, Michael Goldweber had to go overseas to find his passion for the sport. A professor of computer science and mathematics at Xavier, Goldweber took a sabbatical in New Zealand in 11 years.
“I picked up the game there,” Goldweber said. “When I came back, I wanted to continue the sport. I enjoy it. It’s a good indoor winter sport.”
Monaco knew nothing of badminton five years ago. A Seven Hills School alum, he entered the University of Cincinnati in search of a sports club. He narrowed it down to ultimate Frisbee and badminton.
“I went to both my first day,” Monaco said. “And I just liked badminton better.”
Five years later, he’s a senior in the engineering school and president of UC’s recreation badminton club.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Monaco said. “I go to every practice and I stay the whole time.”
He has been playing with the CBC recently, hoping to keep badminton in his life post-graduation. The skill level of many of the players at Haffey also helps him improve his game.
“I’ve never had any formal training,” Monaco said. “They way I’ve learned is just playing a whole lot. You learn by playing with new people.”
Like Joshi, Subba Maddela grew up in India. He moved to New York in 2007 but struggled to pursue his passion for badminton. He often traveled 60, sometimes, 90 minutes by train to find courts. He moved to Cincinnati a year later, and the Cincinnati Badminton Club has been exactly what he wanted.
“I emailed Iggy,” Maddela said. “I ended up here one day and I didn’t stop.”
Maddela is the keeper of the keys, unlocking Haffey for the club each night, because his Blue Ash home is so close to the field house. The CBC has become a community for him.
“This is a social club,” Maddela said. “Here, they welcome everybody.”
So much so that even with potential chances to work in other cities, the software engineer would prefer to stay in Cincinnati.
“Once you like a place, you don’t want to go,” he said.
And the club has even more stories. There’s Dave Turner’s life adventure from London to Hollywood to Milford. There’s the group of restauranteurs--they own May Thai in Milford--who close up shop at nine on Mondays and then rush over to Reading to play badminton into the night. There are the seniors who play in the mornings, regularly sending players to the Senior Olympics. There’s Yuan Zhang, who despite only being a senior at Sycamore High School is one of the club’s most talented players.
These players all weather the heat of a summer night in the Haffey Field House, lost in the fun of hitting a feathered birdie back and forth over a net.
“You see people from all over the world here,” said Joshi. “It’s very interesting how people are joined by the sport of badminton.
“This brings people together, irrespective of profession, where they are from, what they do, so I think that’s beautiful.”
Got an offbeat sports story to share? Connect with contributor Ben Walpole: email@example.com
(Photo by B. Walpole)