“I’m Benny, nice to meet you. What’s your name?” I ask in Cantonese.
“Chong Wei”, he said as he gets off the court.
“Sorry, what?” I ask again not able to hear him the first time.
“Chong Wei,” he said again.
“Great to meet you!” I replied, knowing that I’ll probably forget his name in 30 seconds. I was terrible at remembering names then (sh*t, come to think of it, I probably still am).
It’s August 13, 2005, the Badminton World Champions is underway in Anaheim, California. It was a big deal for the badminton community in the U.S. because all the top tournaments usually happened abroad. Why? Because aside from the small community of hardcore fans, no one cared about the sport, which means there’s no money in it.
Here I am: 16-years-old, pimply-faced, with braces, in my oversized Yonex uniform, which was “large” when I’m really a size small because it was cool in NorCal to wear baggy clothes at the time, at least I thought so (I didn’t have many friends). I had just hitched a ride down with a friend all the way from Northern California, where I grew up. I had been selected as a volunteer Liaison Officer for the tournament. My job was to assist players and coaches in anything they needed, especially translating. For me, I was assigned to Malaysia.
“WTF? I don’t speak Malaysian!” I said to myself.
I literally knew nothing about Malaysia at the time. All I knew was that Wong Choong Hann was a great player from that country because of the hours of watching highlights of 2003 Badminton World Champion on this DVD I borrow from a friend. Back then, there weren’t the abundance of badminton videos online you see today, this DVD was my ONLY means of seeing professional badminton. As a hardcore badminton fan who just discovered the sport 1 year ago, you bet your ass I watched the sh*t out of that DVD.
After all the hours, I knew every single player who I saw in that DVD. I researched them online. But remember, this was the only DVD I had with pro badminton in it, I knew barely anything about other players.
I was scared because I thought I had to help a team where I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them. So you can imagine my joy when I found out they could not only speak perfect English, but some also Mandarin, Cantonese, and Bahasa Indonesia too. It blew my mind at the time and I thought that Malaysia was such an awesome country with so many talented people.
“Where is the bathroom?” Chong Wei asks me. He had just finished training at the venue and his coach had asked me to tend to him.
“Oh, it’s over here. I’ll walk you” I said. For some reason, I was nervous. I wasn’t starstruck at all because I had no clue who he was at the time. It was simply just due to my age and inexperience. I had no idea what I was doing.
“I’m, sorry what’s your name again?” I ask again. (OMG, I’m such an idiot).
“Chong Wei” he says and he stands up and turns around to follow me after picking up his bag.
“So where are you from?” he asks me as he changes inside the bathroom.
“I was born in San Francisco, my parents are from Guangdong, China.”
We make some more small talk and we walk out. I say my goodbyes as he gets into his shuttle back to his hotel. As I walk back inside, a friend runs up to me from behind.
“Holy shit man! Do you know who that was?” he says as he nearly loses his breath from sprinting so hard.
“The Malaysian badminton player? No, I just met him.” I replied looking like a dear in headlights.
“That’s Lee Chong Wei! He just beat Lin Dan at the Malaysia Open in this epic comeback! Lin Dan was pissed after!”
“Wow,” I said and I watched the shuttle take off.
I bonded with Chong Wei and his team during that week. From sitting next to Koo Kien Keat teaching me how to cheer Lee Chong Wei on by yelling “Malaysia! Boleh!” to laughing at Rexy joking around with the team before warmups.
I came from a dysfunction family, I didn’t have many friends growing up, so having these experiences, though trivial, were some of the best times of my life. The added bonus that most of these players I met became badminton legends was a cherry on top.
Chong Wei got a bronze medal that year, along with Peter Gade. Taufik Hidaya earned gold after defeating Lin Dan in the Finals. Funny enough, all four players in the podium would become the four men’s single legends of our time.
“How do I stay in touch with you? I asked Chong Wei as he prepares to leave.
“Do you have something to write with?” he asks.
I take out a folded up paper. I was the same piece of paper Lin Dan had written down his number (a whole other story for another day) for me earlier that day. I handed it to him and he wrote his name and number above on top.
Being the shy kid I was, I never mustered up the courage to keep in touch. I was very sheltered at home, so I didn’t go out much. I wasn’t sure how to foster a relationship back then.
I followed Chong Wei’s career closely from then on. Though I thought of him as a funny guy who liked joking around when I hung out with him, who knew this jokester would become such a legend?
Chong We was an absolute BEAST on the court. I was in awe of the way he moved and how powerful his smashes were. Most of all, his humble demeanor and fire on the court was inspiring.
But most of all, he was living proof that you can be great if you put the work into it and wanted it bad enough. Chong Wei showed that through his training and relentlessness on the court. We cheer for him and wanted him to win, he had earned it. It was his time.
Then our hearts broke for him every time he narrowly missed the coveted gold. He wasn’t only doing this for himself, he was doing it for Malaysia. He had what it took to give the country it’s first gold.
But sadly enough for him, the stars never aligned perfectly for him. He also had to be rivals with possibly the best badminton player of all time. No matter who’s better, Chong Wei is possibly the only man who could consistently push a prime Lin Dan beyond his limits. It’s clear just how good this man is just by how much respect Lin Dan gives him on and off the court.
Some people might focus on what he didn’t get, but I prefer to focus on what he gave: 19 incredible years of legendary badminton filled with unforgettable matches that taught us that if you want something, go after it with everything you have, stand up every time you fall, until you can’t get up anymore, success is a journey, not a race.
Even last year, at an age where most players would retire, Chong Wei is still proving that he can defeat the current new generation of superstars, most recently Kento Momota in the Malaysia Open Finals last year.
Whatever colors he has hung on the wall, Chong Wei has proven he will go down in history as one of the best badminton players of all time, he’s elevated the game to another level and is an inspiration to current and future shuttlers.
Enjoy retirement Chong Wei! – Benny Luo, a huge fan.
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