Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 27, 2012

Olympian heads up USA badminton team as coach

Palo Alto police officer helped grow sport in U.S.

by Eric Van Susteren

As a young athlete, Ben Lee was active in many sports. The future Olympian, however, found only one that could satisfy his high activity level. It wasn't boxing, soccer, or even tennis. It was badminton.

"It got me hooked as soon as I started playing," he said. "It was the combination of so many different things: endurance, speed, power, agility finesse — it's never just one."

Twenty years ago, Lee represented the United States at the Barcelona Olympics in badminton. It was the first year it was included as an Olympic sport. This month he's returning to the Summer Games in London, England, but not as player.

Lee, now a Palo Alto police officer, was selected as the U.S. Olympic Badminton Team's head coach. For the past few months he has been flying to Los Angeles most weeks to coach the team for 10 to 20 hours, pushing them hard in practice and nudging them gently when he tries to motivate them.

"I try not to tell them too much," he said. "It clouds the mind, and I want them to compete with a clear head."

Lee, who was the captain of the '92 Olympic badminton team, said he understands the pressure.

His doubles team made it as far as the final 16 in Barcelona, and the rest U.S. badminton team didn't take any medals home that summer. But he said one of the team's major accomplishments that year was inspiring the next generation of athletes — and Olympians.

"It was definitely one of the pinnacles of my career," he said. "It really motivated a lot of coming-up players that we competed with the resources we had at the level we did."

He said badminton as a serious sport has grown tremendously in the in the U.S. since his time. Professional badminton facilities didn't exist in the Bay Area 10 years ago, Lee said. Today there are 16.

"In the late '80s and in the '90s there were no clubs like there are now," he said. "We were under the mercy of the days and times the high schools and gyms were open, and there weren't many coaches around either. Nowadays players can play in really nice clubs with an abundance of coaches."

The growth doesn't come from only professional badminton facilities. High school teams and college clubs are popping up, both of which do a lot to dispel the image of badminton as a "backyard" sport or "lawn game," he said.

Palo Alto and Gunn high schools have had badminton teams for years and college scholarships are even offered in the sport.

"When you tell people you compete professionally, they still have that backyard image in their mind," he said. "What a lot of people don't realize is that shuttle is coming off the racquet at 200 miles per hour. The flanged design slows it down a lot, but it's still going over the net at 100 miles per hour."

These days, 47-year-old Lee said he can't hit the shuttle that fast and can't compete with the athleticism of the players he coaches, saying it would be like John McEnroe going up against Roger Federer. Still, coaching is his opportunity to stay engaged with the sport and its community.

"Some players retire and they take it easy, move on and start a family," said Lee, who has two children. "For the most part I've done the same, but I've got a great passion for the sport and really wanted to stay involved."

Lee said the discipline and determination he learned from badminton helped him achieve another of his childhood dreams — becoming a police officer.

"It's something that I had wanted to do for a long time — since I was a kid," said Lee, who joined the police department when he was 37. "As I got older I knew if I waited too long it would be too late. I felt like it was either now or never."

Lee, who teaches defensive tactics and is trained in hostage negotiation with the Palo Alto Police Department, is coaching his players much as he would for other international competitions because on the surface they're very similar. Just as in the Pan Am Games or World Championships, players compete with elite competitors in front of thousands, but to Lee there is something different about playing at the Olympics.

"It's the environment that makes it so special," he said. "This is pretty much the event, and the players know it. It's the pinnacle of every dream."

Editorial assistant Eric Van Susteren can be emailed at evansusteren@paweekly.com.

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