Hsuan Yu Wendy Chen will be experiencing her first Olympics when she takes to the Badminton court, representing Australia in the Women’s Singles competition in Rio.
Having emigrated from Taiwan with her family at age 11, Chen is now pursuing a dream that only took shape in the past two years when she decided to focus on singles and, in winning the Oceania Championship this year, she got herself a seat on the plane to Rio.
The 23 year old has loved Badminton all her life. Very much a part of her Asian heritage, she has played from the time she was a young teenager at school in Brisbane, working her way quickly into state team competitions.
“I played all sports when I was little but I played Badminton in junior events all through high school. Badminton is a family sport – the whole family play - so it’s always been my passion since I was young,” said Chen.
Aged just 15, she finished second in the Australian Open Championships and three years later represented Australia at the Junior World Championships.
Chen had been studying electrical engineering at the University of Queensland up until two years ago when she put all that on hold to turn professional and have a crack at climbing the Badminton world rankings and seriously started to consider playing in her first Olympics.
“I went professional two years ago when I decided to try and qualify for the Olympics. I was studying at Queensland University (UQ) doing Electrical Engineering, but then I stopped all that because I had to travel to get world rankings to qualify. So basically I’m just doing Badminton now - but I will be going back to my studies after the Olympics,” she said.
Chen says the decision to go professional brings with it a financial burden, which she has had to address by securing personal sponsorship that enables her to compete on the world stage.
“It’s very hard because you have to get sponsors to be able to travel internationally (to compete) and being a low profile sport in Australia makes it really hard, because the resources we get are not as much compared to other sports. The support from Badminton Australia is limited so I have to get sponsors for myself.
“In the past year I have travelled to 16 tournaments – so I have had to fly out pretty much every month.”
The financial aspect of her sporting life to some degree dictates where to and how much she travels and therefore competes, so Australia’s proximity to Asia works in her favour financially. However, Asia is considered the hub of badminton as a sport, thereby increasing the difficulty of the path she has chosen due to the higher calibre of competition she faces in the region.
“You get to decide (where you go) because it’s all over the world. So I go to Asia because it’s cheaper to travel around but then it’s also relatively harder compared to European competition because Asians are more involved in Badminton – so the level and calibre of talent makes it harder,” said Chen.
Chen has just returned from time in Taiwan doing some intensive pre-Olympic training - having just a few days to recover from jetlag and pack before heading to Brazil this week.
She finds the facilities and resources in Taiwan, for a singles player, are well suited for her training and she has been able to call on her familiarity and continuing ties with the country to gain access to what she needs.
“There’s no singles program in Melbourne in the national squad – they are more focused on doubles - so that’s why I went to Taiwan for training because they have more resources.”
“It’s like a club. They have fitness trainers, physio, sports massage and coaches, ex-Olympians that can help me with training – so that’s why I go. With my Asian background I can access that and my friends help me too."
In 2012, aged 19, Chen won the Australian titles in both singles and doubles but was not then thinking of an Olympics pathway despite that being an Olympic year.
“I wasn’t thinking about this Olympics four years ago. I was more into studying so it wasn’t until two years ago that I started to plan for this Olympics,” she said.
“It’s very hard to find a doubles partner and that’s why I wasn’t thinking about it four years ago, but then I changed to singles so that’s made it easier. In doubles, it’s hard to find two people to play and to train – it’s the same in other countries – so it becomes harder playing singles because the good players are more focused on singles.”
Earlier this year Chen won the Oceania Singles title, but it was not all smooth sailing. The competition was ultimately held across two countries as a result of some very warm Pacific conditions. Something Chen looks back on with some amusement.
“The humidity in Tahiti was too high - it was like 85 to 93 percent - so the courts were very slippery and not good to play on. It was actually quite dangerous to play there - but it was funny - it had to be finished in Auckland in New Zealand,” she said.
“We played all the other finals – the doubles – there (Tahiti) on the Sunday; all except the singles – because you move around the court more for singles – so they moved those finals. It was very funny, very unusual!” laughed Chen.
Chen is getting excited having now seen the draw for her competition and feels confident about her prospects in the early matches.
“The draw is already out and mine is not too bad. We have 13 seeds and so are sorted into 13 groups – there are three in my group and I have the 12th seed (in my group) so that’s not too bad - and the winner of the group goes into the round of 16.”
“So my biggest goal will be getting out of the group, into the round of 16 and then into the quarter finals. That’s my goal because it’s my first Olympics,” she said.
Wendy Chen knows that her task in Rio is a tough one but is looking at this Olympics as an experience to enjoy and to learn from with more ahead in the coming years.
Next May will see the Sudirman Cup – which is like the World Cup of Badminton – played in Australia, virtually on Chen’s doorstep on the Gold Coast. The following year is the 2018 Commonwealth Games – also on the Gold Coast – for which Chen is particularly keen to qualify.
“I will be going back to study, so there’ll be less travelling, but I’ll definitely be trying to qualify for the Commonwealth Games,” she said.
With two major events in the sport headed for Australia over the next two years, Chen is excited at the prospect of Badminton’s profile being raised in her home nation, having noticed an increase in both interest and participation in the sport internationally.
“The population in Badminton is increasing. A lot of people are crazy about it – more outside Australia – but I’d really love to see Badminton promoted in Australia.”
But in her immediate future is the trip to Rio and the thrill of competing in her first Olympic Games.
While she is a little reticent around the issue of safety and what the athletes village will be like, she is really looking forward to enjoying the Opening Ceremony with the Badminton competition not scheduled to begin until Day 6 (Aug 11).
“I’m just hoping to see everything!”