Unknown to most, Swarthmore offers the opportunity to play a game that originated in ancient European and Asian civilizations more than two thousand years ago. Yes, we have a “battledore and shuttlecock” team! Can’t find it on our athletics website? Try searching four-time defending Pennsylvania State Champions. Yes, we have badminton at Swarthmore!
Badminton at Swarthmore is particularly intriguing because of its proud history. In 2000, when several sports including football and wrestling were eliminated badminton managed to survive. Today we have a women’s varsity team and a men’s club team that interact in a unique way.
The women’s varsity team has eight players, three from China (Tracy Tang ’18, Peiwen Zhang ’18, and Tina Zhu ’17), one from Hong Kong (Natasha Chak ’18), one from Vietnam (Lan Anh Ngo Quy ’19) another from Myanmar (May Zin Htet ’19) a freshman from New Zealand (Hailie Xie ’19), a junior from California (Francis Ge ’17) and a senior from Illinois (Stephanie Wey ’16).
Evoking the lenient invitation timelines that the Duke of Beaufort offered to his guests, the badminton team lacks a regular competing schedule. Instead their season revolves around three main tournaments and team meets. The Garnet began its promising season in October after big wins against Villanova (6-0) and Haverford (3-1). Earlier this semester the team traveled to Pottstown, Pennsylvania and competed in the Smashville Tropical Tournament.
Notably, badminton at Swarthmore integrates and promotes the interaction between varsity and club. “There is no divide. We are one team. We all practice and learn from each other,” said Wey, the team’s captain.
Although not recognized as an official NCAA sport, women’s badminton has fought and maintained one of the country’s few varsity statuses. Today the majority of collegiate badminton is student-led. Thus, students coordinate meets, training schedules, and tournament participation.
However, programs are very unstable and some teams disappear as quickly as they are formed. Last year, after very short notice, the team’s coach, Bhavin Parikh, left and the team was forced to question its existence. Team captains Wey from the women’s team and George Zhu ’17 for the men’s team are recognized among the team as having taken huge leadership roles and keeping the birdie soaring.
According to Ge last season was a difficult one. “In order to stay together we had to sit down and figure out what we wanted and how we were going to continue to train, compete, and improve,” she said. “Partially because it’s a men’s club sport and women’s varsity, and partially because we had different experience levels, we each came with different expectations and goals. It proved hard to reconcile our opinions, but in the end we decided that we wanted to stick together as one team”.
This year the team gladly welcomed coach Robert Fisk, an associate head coach for the men’s baseball team. Coach Fisk has been instrumental in the team’s conditioning and the development of their mental game.
“Ninety percent of coaching is the environment you foster,” Fisk said. “I love coaching. I knew coming in it was going to be a challenge since badminton is something I am not too familiar with, but I try to motivate the players and give as much advice as I can”.
However, the perseverance of badminton on our campus is not new, but rather part of its long history at Swarthmore. Liz Leininger ’04 was starting her first semester at Swarthmore when the decisions to cut football, wrestling, and badminton were taking place. “That was a difficult time for the college community, particularly the teams that were affected, and there was hurt over the lack of communication during the decision-making process,” said Leininger. An athletic review committee was formed and examined athletics at Swarthmore; especially the varsity recruiting needed to competitively field all of the teams. Due to Swarthmore’s size the committee decided to cut football, wrestling, and badminton.
“The decision to eliminate women’s badminton, along with football and wrestling, was confusing from a Title IX perspective and by the recruiting rationale,” explained Leininger. “Many members of the badminton team had played before, but as far as I know, few to none of us were recruited to Swarthmore specifically for badminton. Therefore, badminton had been fielding a successful and competitive team with minimal, if any, formal varsity recruiting.”
So how did badminton manage to survive the fate of wrestling and football? The team lobbied the Dean’s office and brought in many alums to make their case. The program was saved and, according to former team captain Kim Kramer ’10, hosted the Collegiate Nationals. Sponsored by USA Badminton, Swarthmore and the department of Athletics hosted the Badminton Nationals, a three-day festival over Easter weekend in 2008.
Reflecting on her time at Swarthmore Leininger emphasized the importance of being a student athlete: “Badminton helped me achieve balance as a student. I loved being part of the team. Engaging myself in non-academic activities was an important part of feeding my “whole” self, which helped keep me refreshed and well rounded while I was at Swarthmore. I think this is the major benefit of athletics at a DIII school: it helps feed the whole person, with the recognition that they are first and foremost students.”
Persistence and hard work have so far kept the “battledore and shuttlecock” varsity team alive and well. The Garnet will host Haverford on Saturday and travel to Bryn Mawr on Sunday where we hope to get a rematch. The team is excited and training hard for the Northeast Collegiate Championships held in March and will conclude their season in April with the Pennsylvania State Open.