BY CRAIG BOHNERT
The Rio Olympic Games will be a Games of many firsts for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Badminton Team. Team USA will be represented in all five badminton events – men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles, and mixed doubles – for the first time in Olympic history, and will also send its first mixed doubles team, an event that was added to the Olympic program in 1996, to the Olympics.
Leading the pack is Eva Lee, who will compete in her second Olympic Games this summer, joining six first-time Olympians in Rio de Janeiro to comprise the team that will be seeking the country's first-ever Olympic badminton medal. Lee is a former Irvine Valley College student-athlete, winning state titles in both singles and doubles back in 2006.
A veteran of the Beijing 2008 Games, Lee will play women's doubles with Paula Lynn Obanana in Rio. Ranked No. 29 in the latest world rankings, the pair won the gold medal at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games and already has picked up three medals this year, silvers at the Tahiti International and the Austrian Open and a bronze at the Peru International. They earned five medals in 2015, including golds at the Pan American Games and Chile International, silvers at the Bulgarian and Guatemala internationals and a bronze at the Brazil Open. A native of Hong Kong, Lee will celebrate her 30th birthday in Rio on Aug. 7. Lee was the most decorated player at the Rio 2007 Pan American Games, taking gold in women's singles, women's doubles and mixed doubles.
"I am so honored and grateful to be able to represent Team USA for a second time at the 2016 Olympic Games," Lee said. "It took us six years to get here and I am so thankful that we have had the support of our family, friends, sponsors and fans the whole way."
"Everything seems so surreal," said 31-year-old Obanana, who was born in the Philippines. "I feel so overwhelmed, ecstatic and blessed. I am finally living my dream and I will do my best to certainly bring home a medal for our country."
Phillip Chew will compete in both men's doubles and mixed doubles in Rio. Teaming with Sattawat Pongnairat, he earned the men's doubles gold at the 2015 Pan American Games. At No. 35 in the latest world ranking, the duo took silver at the Tahiti International and bronze at the Brazil International this year. In addition to the Pan Ams gold, they also earned silver at the Mercosul International in 2015. A veteran combination, they were the silver medalists at the Guadalajara 2011 Pan American Games.
"I'm very excited to qualify for my first Olympic Games as one of only six athletes to qualify for two events in badminton," Chew said of his feat. "My family, especially my grandfather and coach, Don Chew, my coaches at the Orange County Badminton Club, Cai Zi Min, Rudi Gunawan, and Ignatius Rusli, Yonex, my girlfriend Tracey, and my partners, Sattawat [Pongnairat] and Jamie [Subandhi] have all been instrumental in my qualification and I look forward to competing on the biggest stage in badminton."
Chew will be joined by Jamie Subandhi for mixed doubles competition, where they currently are ranked No. 27 in the world. They have taken silver at the Tahiti International and bronze at the Brazil International this season. Gold medalists at the 2015 Pan American Games, they also won at the Chile International last year, adding a silver at the Sydney International and bronze at the Yonex Grand Prix and Guatemala International. Chew and Subandhi are the first U.S. mixed doubles athletes to qualify for an Olympic Games.
"I am extremely excited to compete in the Olympic Games this summer," Subandhi said. "It is nice to see that the hours of hard work and team effort have paid off. Now, I am looking forward to the incredible honor of representing our country. It is an absolute dream come true."
Howard Shu will play men's singles for the United States in Rio. The bronze medalist at the 2015 Pan Ams, he won the singles title at the 2016 Pan Am Team Continental Championships and won bronze at the Jamaica International and Giraldilla International this year. That was added to four golds earned in 2015, at the Botswana, South Africa, New Caledonia and Nigeria Internationals. He currently is ranked No. 64 in the world.
"I started playing badminton when I was 8 years old so it's really surreal to see my name on that final list and know that I'm going to be competing at the most prestigious athletic event in the world," Shu said.
Competing in women's singles will be Iris Wang, currently No. 34 in the world. The champion at the 2016 Pan Am Team Continental Championship, she has taken silver at the Peru International and bronze at the Brazil International this season. A bronze medalist at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games, she also took the singles title at the Spanish International last season and added a silver at the Bangladesh Open. At the age of 21, she already has six years of international competition on her resume, including a silver in women's doubles at the Guadalajara 2011 Pan American Games.
"Ever since I started playing badminton, my dream was to compete at the Olympic Games," said Wang, the youngest member of the team at 21. "Now that it's a reality, I'm eagerly looking forward to playing my best in Rio this summer!"