RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Howard Shu was just 10 when he lost a match in his first badminton tournament to the top junior in his class.
Shu’s mother was wowed by the talent on the other side of the net and asked the winner’s mother if her son would like to compete with Howard in doubles.
The mother was blunt:
“Your son sucks.”
Shu laughed as he recalled the story that would serve as motivation for him to become more a serious badminton player. He returned to the same tournament the next year and beat the kid who was too good to team with Shu.
Shu’s been winning matches around the world for most of the last 15 years.
The top-ranked American singles player has his biggest match yet when he opens play Friday in a sport known more as a lazy backyard summer game than a serious sport in the Summer Games.
China won gold in all five badminton events in 2012, and many top Chinese will again be contenders when play opens Wednesday.
Shu would love to leave with a medal to go with another passport stamp. Shu’s Instagram page looks like something straight out of Where’s Waldo. There’s Shu chilling in a pool after the Olympic trials in Tahiti. Or he’s snapping a selfie from Table Mountain in South Africa.
He even posted a short clip of the time he pulled on a wetsuit and went swimming with the sharks in Cape Town, South Africa after he won a major international tournament. Sometimes, he’s just kicking up his Jordans and relaxing.
Shu’s thirst for adventure and his world-class skills have made him the natural spokesman for an American team hopeful of bringing home the country’s first medal in the sport. Badminton is on the short list of sports the U.S. has failed to even medal in, joining handball, rhythmic gymnastics, table tennis and trampoline.
The 25-year-old Shu, who graduated from UCLA, isn’t a strong medal favorite. But he has the type of charisma that could help Americans take notice of badminton for at least a few days should he advance deep into the tournament.
Badminton is stuck in the same Rio de Janeiro complex as other minor sports that include weightlifting and table tennis. At the Olympic level, badminton smashes reach over 200 mph and boast long rallies that could rival the most thrilling in tennis. The shuttle whizzes across the net like a darting mosquito and only the best make sure the shuttlecock — made of 16 goose feathers stuck to a leather-covered round cork, that weighs only about 5 grams — never hits the floor.
“Every player has a different style. When I go on the court, it’s really like art,” Shu said.
Shu’s parents are both from Taiwan and his father played badminton. Shu started playing at 8, “running around like a little brat” when he tagged along with his dad. Shu played soccer and baseball, even basketball, which forged what he called an addiction to sneakers.
Yes, the Shu certainly fits when it comes to calling him a Jordan aficionado.
The sneaker junkie has more than 100 pairs of sneaks and multiples of his favorites (“one to rock, one to stock”) with a fondness for the Air Jordan 11s.
He’s put some serious miles on his size-10 soles. The 6-foot-1 Shu has dominated badminton around the world, especially last year when he hit 30 countries in 12 tournaments, including one six-week stretch where he played on six continents.
And one serious plunge with great white sharks .
“I was on such a high from a winning a tournament, I just said, ‘I’m doing it,'” he said.
Back on dry land, Shu posed for a photo with Kevin Durant at the opening ceremony parade and later watched the U.S. squad romp over Venezuela with friends and family from home.
He’s part of a seven-member delegation that’s a longshot to medal — but hopeful to open American eyes to an underappreciated sport.
“I just want to go out there and show people what the sport can be,” Shu said.