Joshua Hurlburt-Yu and Josephine Wu have come a long way in double-quick time. Having paired up in August 2018 after stints with other partners, the Canadians were off the blocks in a flash, winning their first tournament, and going on to become the top pair in Pan Am over the next year. From No.121 in January 2019, they have rocketed up to No.31, and are well-placed to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (they are No.14 in the Race to Tokyo).
In Part 1 of this two-part interview, Hurlburt-Yu and Wu talk about their unconventional start, finding their feet on the circuit, and their realisation that Tokyo 2020 was achievable.
Can you talk about your background? Growing up, was there a lot of badminton in your lives?
Josephine: My mom’s Malaysian and dad’s Chinese, so they grew up playing badminton recreationally, and they enjoyed watching it too. I grew up watching a lot of badminton.
Joshua: My parents met through badminton. My mom used to play in China, she used to train with the Guangdong team. My dad was pretty athletic, he played everything, but he enjoyed badminton the most. Growing up, I actually didn’t play badminton, I was into soccer, but my mom was a coach and she coached me. My mom didn’t like watching badminton, but I would watch it myself, I’d find videos online. I thought it was so cool to watch Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, Peter Gade, Taufik and all those guys.
You (Joshua) played a few international tournaments in 2014 but then there was a break of four years. What happened?
I got injured badly and I had to stop… it wasn’t until 2018-2019 that I had people who would financially support me so I decided to play for fun, and I just played some tournaments. Then I realised that I could still play a bit, so I decided to keep playing. Then after a couple of tournaments, I talked to Josephine, and we first talked of playing together.
When you got together as a pair, was qualifying for the Olympics even a remote possibility in your minds?
Joshua: When we first started together… she thought I was joking. When I asked her to play mixed with me, she messaged me saying, are you actually serious? And I said, let’s do it. She hadn’t even watched me play, but I remembered her from before. She went blindly, but it turned out we’re actually a good team.
Josephine: The Olympics was not something that was in line for me, because in Canada you can’t make money off badminton. Given my background we only play because I’ve had people help me on the way and kind of pull strings for me. When Joshua came along, (the question was) do I want to go for the Olympics or not, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we decided to go for it.
You won the first tournament you played together. What did you make of that start?
Josephine: I’d say we had no expectations. We played freely. The more tournaments you play, the more you realise about problems. Our styles matched and we played well together.
What was it like when you started out on the circuit?
Joshua: It was hard in the beginning, because we were unseeded. Sometimes we’d get bad draws. We’d play hard teams and we’d pull through, and then we realised that okay, we can probably make the Olympics, we have a good chance.
Josephine: Also, both of us aren’t financially well off, so we had to stick to the north and south of the Pan Am region first, so we knew we’d get into the draw, and as we started winning those, we established a certain ranking, and that was able to guarantee us in Europe.
You settled down quickly as a pair. That’s rather unusual at the top level.
Joshua: We’re doing good for the Race to Tokyo. We also have the continental spot but the big thing we agree on is that we don’t want to rely on the continental spot.
Josephine: It’s kind of good because the competition in our region has dropped off. In a a way we can focus more on our game. All year, I was looking at the ranking, making sure we were well above and what we need, but now I feel we can focus on our game, rather than on the technicalities of how to qualify.
From just six tournaments in 2018, you played 18 events the next year. What was it like to suddenly be on the circuit full-time?
Josephine: It meant a new experience. I’m exhausted! To me it’s all new. Learning as we go, talking to other people helps, about recovery and such things.
Joshua: Growing up, I was always watching top players play, and I was watching big tournaments, and it was crazy that I was watching it all my life, and now I’m playing in it, actually seeing top players face to face and sometimes being able to talk to them, it’s crazy, it blows my mind.
(Part 2 of the interview to follow)