Meet Yuko Kawasaki, who is to badminton what a Swiss Army knife is to a camping trip–only a whole lot funnier.
Yuko Kawasaki is that rarest of individuals that can comment directly from experience on multiple aspects of the sport that she loves. She’s played competitively at the high school, collegiate, national, and even international level. She’s a coach, she’s a certified rules official, and now she’s taking on the role of tournament organizer. And not just any tournament, mind you. She’s bringing to Manhattan Beach, California a Badminton World Federation International Series event—smack in the middle of an Olympic qualifying year, no less. Recently, Yuko agreed to remain stationary long enough for me to capture her thoughts on multi-tasking, badminton style. Here’s just some of what she had to say…
You know, the more I thought about it, I am somebody that played in high school, I left the game for 20 years, came back, and just have had amazing opportunities—played on the Badminton World Federation Tour, traveled to South America to play. I mean, I have gotten so many things. I keep telling the kids, ‘I want you to enjoy badminton now, and get good enough—which they have—to go away to college, find that group of kids that plays badminton, and then you go out and get Vietnamese noodles after you’re done. It’s so much fun! You’ll meet really nice people that way; it’s an easy way to meet people—you all share a common interest.’ Now there’s one thing missing from that: scholarship. Yes, see, and that’s where, there is no badminton scholarships. There used to be, at Arizona State, when I was going to college. I played for San Jose State and UCLA, and Arizona State had, like that was pretty much where the national team came out of. They were one of the only colleges that offered scholarships. But then the NCAA got rid of us as a sport because, primarily, I heard, it was because we were the only college sport that had a mixed event—a mixed doubles, men and women.
Let me back up and talk first about your career; how you got started playing badminton. Was it something your parents introduced you to? Your friends? Did you just, like, pick up a badminton racquet one day and start goofing around with it?
I was an avid tennis player and I think my parents, I think my mom had sights on college scholarship. And I injured my knee. And it took me out of tennis. I was in a cast for, like, I don’t know how many months. So I got put in adaptive P.E., because I couldn’t hobble around doing, you know, normal high school P.E. And badminton was one of the sports. They would like, string up three nets and try and keep the bird over the net, back and forth. And I liked it well enough, I was good with a racquet, because of my tennis background. And the adaptive P.E. teacher was the head badminton coach. So when I was a sophomore, the second year…” And this is what town? “In Cupertino. She said, ‘Why don’t you come out for the badminton team? You’ll do great, you’ll grow to love it.’ [responding reluctantly]… ‘Alright…’ So I fell in love with the sport, started playing competitively, and that’s where I got my start!
And so you were able to play in high school competitively? You just kind of took it for granted because you were a high school kid and your high school had a badminton team that played against other high schools that had a badminton team? So you never really thought about where this was going. You just did it because you liked playing…
Yeah. I just totally loved playing. I started playing a lot of the local tournaments. I went to Junior Nationals once. It used to be held in Colorado Springs, at the Olympic Training Center. That was so cool! Like, they housed us all at the Olympic Training Center. We got to meet all these other athletes, like, table tennis athletes. We got to eat all we wanted in the cafeteria. That’s what we thought was so cool. [laughing] There were no adults chaperoning us! It was so cool!! You were an Olympian… Yeah! You could buy the USA jacket. I still have mine. Like I really don’t keep much stuff, but I still have mine because it was soooo cool. Yeah—the Olympic Training Center. Now they don’t have it there anymore, which is too bad. But it used to be Junior Nationals, followed by Adult Nationals. It was a big deal to play in those events. Now it is not such a big deal to play in the Adult Nationals.
When you first moved to Manhattan Beach, how did you find the club?
Well, I knew it as a kid because I went to UCLA, and there was a friend there who, I guess he must have been like a playing member or something, because he had a key to the club. So we would come in at, like, midnight and play. We would be there from like, twelve to two or three. [laughing] It wasn’t as restrictive as it is now. And then we’d drive back to the west side. So I knew about it, and then I played a couple tournaments as a junior as well.
You went touring internationally. How long ago was that? Back when you were a kid? It sounded like it was fairly recent…
Yeah, it’s been in the past year. So it was like a bucket list kind of thing. Yeah, it was never really in my bucket, but what an amazing opportunity. So your intention was to go on and build up points to qualify for the Olympic team? Well, my intention originally was just to have the chance to do it. What an amazing opportunity. I mean, I have three kids, so my husband would really have to agree to take on the kids the whole week. I mean, my mom came to help. I had different relatives kind of come in for the different tournaments, but my husband really had to say, ‘OK, this was your dream, this is part of it.’ So my intention originally was just to get to do it.
When I first started, I’m like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see how the professional athletes do it. This is so cool!’ And then I was stuck in Venezuela, in Caracas. Mold in the room, there’s a leak in the room that we listened to all night, drip-drip-drip. My partner’s saying, ‘Don’t brush your teeth with that water!’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ ‘You’re here to compete. If you get a stomach bug you’re going to be out for the week.’
I only went to six tournaments in my travels with Alistair, and I just thought, ‘This is crazy. Like, this is crazy. We are in the middle nowhere. They’re not even all nice locations. They’re in cities where no one’s ever heard of. You land in an airport and then they have to drive you somewhere for two hours. And there were, you know, metal detectors when you walked into the restaurants. And I just thought, ‘Well this is what I really like about traveling—to see how it is in other countries.’ And then, you know, I can’t wait to play badminton in these other countries. So we go to the hall, and there’s people with machine guns guarding the hall. It’s all locked and there’s like this steel fence around the whole thing. Our transport, there’s a guy with a gun—this giant gun, not this little police—giant guns! And I think, ‘Man, we’re in a bus. It’s a really small place. If that gun goes off, we’re gonna be dead.’
But the traveling was cool for me because it’s amazing to get to play in a different hall, and I would think professional sports means that there’s going to be a certain quality of hall that you play in. But yet, it rained in one hall, there was wind in another hall. I mean, they were all fascinating things that I think, ‘I gotta take a picture of this, because no one will believe me, that I went to a BWF event and this little tree is going like this inside this hall!’ In badminton air current matters! I thought, this is nuts! This is professional?
So where does the money come to pay the purses for these types of events if they’re in such blighted areas?
You know, I don’t know where other countries get the money for that stuff. I know, for me, because being on this tour, seeing these horrible conditions, BUT getting to watch really good badminton…and so, living with my mixed doubles partner, he’s been on the world tour forever, he’s qualified for World Championships—really accomplished player. And his name again is? Alistair Casey. So, in all our time that we spent together, he always said, ‘You know, for an Olympic qualifying year, all the tournaments are just going to be crazy—people are gonna be jumping all over the globe to try and collect points for any tournament you have during an Olympic qualifying year.’ And it happened just like he said it would! [laughing] When we started, we were in Venezuela, Colombia…we would see all the Pan-Am region players—so all of South America, the U.S. And then, in the end of our time together, we went to Puerto Rico—that was our last stop. And we saw teams from Italy, there was somebody from the Czech Republic. Like, why are they here? This is so weird! And Alistair said, ‘I told you. They’re getting ready for Olympic qualifications’. So after I saw all these horrible places I thought, ‘Man, we should have one in Manhattan Beach! Can we do this?’
So, I decided I wanted to bring this tournament to the Manhattan Beach Badminton Club. Like, how can we hold an international series tournament? So I applied with USAB, and they said, ‘Oh, you know, we don’t think we’re going to be allowed to, because there’s already several tournaments in the U.S., we don’t think we’re allowed to but I’ll check with somebody. I’ll get back to you.’ Well, we have like, ten days before the deadline.
Normally you can apply with the Badminton World Federation up to four months before your tournament would start. During an Olympic qualifying year, because everyone’s going crazy for these points, they make the calendar so it is set April 3oth until the day before the Olympic qualification cycle starts, so there’s no finagling or adding new tournaments at the last second. Anyway, it took a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails—just being persistent, but nice, trying not to make anybody mad, doing my own research. And finally they said ‘Well, OK, it looks like it’s fine. We’re going to put it through.’ And next thing you know, it’s on the BWF calendar, Manhattan Beach, February, 2016. We’re on the calendar.
We got the Adult Nationals first. And that was [from] hanging out at a tournament, watching my kids play, and somebody came up to me—another gentleman who I play a lot of badminton with—and said, ‘What do you think? Would Manhattan Beach want to host this tournament?’ And the guy next to me kind of laughed and said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ And I said, ‘God, that would be so cool!, right.’ Because my memory is, yeah, Nationals is such a big deal. His memory, because he’s been playing the whole time, so he’s like, he’s already seen the decline. So he’s like, ‘Why would we want to do that?’ All I can see is, oh my God, I love Manhattan Beach Badminton Club. This would be so great to have the spotlight on us, because we’re the oldest club in the country. Like, we deserve some love!
So they had said, ‘We’re looking for a place to have it,’ which in code means, ‘Nobody wants to do it.’ Which, I didn’t really understand that code [laughing]. You do now! Right. And the sanctioning, you have to bid on it. And I said, ‘Oh, well what’s the bid?’ And they said it’s two thousand dollars. I said, ‘Well, forget it then. There’s no way.’
‘Well, how much would you guys pay to have it?’
And I said, ‘We won’t pay anything to have it. I think it would be fun to host it. I’d be willing to put in my time.’
So a week later I get a call from the guy, and he’s like, ‘OK, well they’re going to waive the bid fee if you want to do it…’ This is such a microcosm of the kind of love that people have for these sports, that you’ll just keep pushing and pushing and pushing, even though there’s nothing in it for you, other than you want to do it for your sport. And that’s really neat. And you should be commended for that. Thanks.
Nationals was…it was great. I mean, it was disappointing that we had such a small turnout, but it was expected. Which is unfortunate. So did the membership of the Board…what was their reaction after the event was held? They were very happy that we held the event. We got really great response. USAB was happy with us, and the players were super-happy. One of the things that kept coming up was ‘Do we get to take these trophies home? Is this mine?’ Yeah, it’s yours. ‘We don’t have to give it back?’ No. Because a lot of these big tournaments, they are perpetual trophies. And for me, because I’m a player I always thought, ‘Man, if I won the national championship, what would I want?’ And that’s what I picked. These giant trophies with these granite bases. They were so beautiful, and I thought, ‘If I ever won a national championship, this is what I’d want.’ The players were so happy! [laughing] And it is what became the pictures on USAB and Badminton Monthly, and so here everyone thought, ‘Oh, that must have been a really great tournament.’ So it was a success from the club’s standpoint, just from a feel-good basis… Yeah, it was totally feel-good and like, ‘Wow—we got to hold Nationals.’ We’d never held Nationals in all the years.