Para badminton might not have been their first love, but it has certainly become their abiding passion.
For many of those who participated at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, badminton’s special qualities pulled them from other sports. The various classes in the sport, its non-contact nature, its finer aspects such as control and precision as much as power and speed, were qualities that adherents were drawn to.
Australia’s Grant Manzoney, for instance, had played several able-bodied sports even while using prosthesis for his left ankle. He was a ten-pin bowler and then a successful club cricketer, but it got increasingly painful to continue with standing sports, so he took up wheelchair basketball.
“I was two weeks away from going to the 2017 World Championships,” said Mahoney. “I was playing one night and someone threw me a pass and I was close to breaking my finger. I had to make decision then, if I had to make the Paralympics I really needed to keep the possibility of injury away.
“I kind of stumbled upon badminton. I got invited to a come-and-try session. I immediately fell in love with the game, the skill and speed of the game.”
What was it about badminton that attracted him to the sport?
“It’s the uniqueness of skills involved. I’m a strong guy with power, but then to learn the softer techniques, very delicate touch, things like that, for me it’s the vast range of skills, going from booming smashes to the most delicate drop shots and net shots. I think it’s the uniqueness of the sport, the speed of the sport, all those things, and learning the movement of the chair is very different from wheelchair basketball. So I think all those things culminated with me falling in love with the sport.”
Manzoney’s compatriot Caitlin Dransfield was a keen tennis player from when she was seven years old. The Paralympics was a goal, and Dransfield was disappointed to know that tennis had only the Wheelchair class for the disabled. She decided to give badminton a shot.
“My coach Ian (Bridge) said that if I worked hard I could go to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. The Paralympics was a childhood dream, so when Ian came along and said that, I was really excited.
“Badminton’s fast, but it’s also tactical as well, it’s not just about hitting a fast shot. You have to know where your opponent is. It’s not just one thing that I like, I like the whole thing.”
There are of course those who pursue more than one sport. Egypt’s Ahmed Eldakrory, for instance, runs a squash academy. Having taken up badminton just three years ago, he is passionate about both sports.
“I didn’t find it difficult to adjust. Some things are different; the footwork and some of the shot techniques are different. I love squash and I love badminton. Some of my squash students, when they don’t play squash well, I get them into badminton, and sometimes it turns out well.”
The most well-known example of someone excelling at their sport and switching to Para badminton is Karin Suter-Erath, who was an elite handball player before an accident in 1997 turned her towards wheelchair sport. She played wheelchair tennis at the Paralympics in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 before turning her attention to Para badminton.
“The sport has become bigger, better and more organised. In 2014 there was the decision that it would be included in the Paralympics programme. I decided that I wanted to go for that.”
Of her Paralympic journey, she said: “Different sport, different time, so we can’t compare it. But it’s great that I could come to Japan. It’s so well organised, it’s unbelievable. Also, the venue and everything else, I’m very impressed.
“It’s very different from Athens, but it’s the Paralympics, and it’s the biggest goal for us as athletes, and it’s always amazing.”
All of them are convinced that the sport can only grow bigger from this point onwards. Manzoney is excited about the potential for Para badminton in Australia.
“It’s massive. One of the best things is the exposure the sport will get. Hopefully from this we’ll be able to build the sport. Especially in Australia, where it’s a new sport. In Australia, people get sent in the direction of basketball or rugby.
“I think Para badminton’s going to open a lot of people’s eyes.”