I first saw her on a Saturday afternoon. She’s sporty, and although I’m really not, she called out to me and we played badminton together. She’s a brand new yellow sports wheelchair, and I’ve named her ‘Scorching Sunshine’.
I had been getting ready for a swim at Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre (MSAC) when I met Kon Kiryakudya. He’s in a wheelchair too, and suggested I ditch the swim in favour of a casual badminton session at the MSAC courts nearby.
I’d seen wheelchair athletes on TV, playing rugby and tennis, rolling at speed, leaning forward and throwing their arms down, propelling these highly engineered machines. They look cool. I definitely needed some exercise—and this was a chance to try a sports chair in the process.
So I accepted Kon’s offer to race around in a sports chair—under the pretense of a game of badminton—and rolled after him into the huge 12-court stadium used by the para-sports club.
Kay Cody, a veteran in Victorian Badminton and the head coach, introduces herself. (I later heard that Kay has travelled around the world supporting Australian badminton as an official and player.) She pushes a bright yellow, brand new sports wheelchair over towards me. A red plastic luggage tag hanging off the back reads ‘Hands off!’ Kay raised the funds to buy it—my new love, Scorching Sunshine.
Within a minute I’m in the chair and on court with Ravi, Raj and Kay, the coaches. Racket in hand, my arm is pulled up like a marionette by coach Ravi. ‘From the wrist’ and ‘flick’ are the instructions as he then lobs shuttles over the net at me. A bit later, I hear Kay’s signature three-syllable command for the first time: ‘Move. Your. Chair!’
Sports chairs are fast—they want to move. Give them the slightest push and they surge forward.
Sports chairs are fast—they want to move. Give them the slightest push and they surge forward. The camber of the wheels (that is, the angle they’re set against the axels, usually 15–20 degrees) and the small front caster wheels allow them to ‘spin on a dime’ too. The timber courts just add to the speed.
The session is relaxed, structured and certainly meets my requirement for exercise. Para-badminton requires simultaneous exertion and strong focus. The twin actions of positioning the chair and preparing to return the shuttle are conflicting messages. It’s like the kid’s game of rubbing your head and patting your stomach—doing both at the same time takes practice and focus.
At the nets, there are players who have a less-than-athletic physique—don’t be fooled. (I later learn, the hard way, that they are in fact ‘match-fit’.) With their skill, technique and accumulated hours on court, they can spin opponents in circles without breaking a sweat.
Badminton has been compared to fencing. Watching the able-bodied players spring, lunge and strike, you can see the similarities. The acrobatic element is missing from the adapted game, but it’s no less strategic or competitive. The rules are much the same for both games. Simply play within the lines and don’t let the shuttle hit the ground.
Three months after my debut, I recognise some improvements in my game —on-court movement had improved, as had my racket technique. Always a sporting pacifist, I am surprised to note that I had an emerging competitive streak (more with myself than with other players).
I’ve now been playing for 9 months and am a committee member of the Ability Para Badminton Club, which plays regularly at MSAC on Saturdays. I urge anyone with even the slightest inclination to come along and try it out.
Who knows — you could be the next Danny O’Neil. When he started playing, he just wanted a social hit to keep him busy for a few hours on the weekend. ‘I’m not training for the Paralympics’ he joked with Kay. Despite this, 18 months later Danny was in London representing Australia at the Paralympics.
Of course, badminton offers more than a chance for elite sporting glory. Regardless of your skills, the pace is just right — enough to keep you moving, but it’s not like you’re a puddle of sweat by the end. It’s also tactical — there’s thought around technique and placement to outwit your opponent.
And then, if you play at MSAC, there’s my girl — Scorching Sunshine.