Monday 24 July 2017

'It's been the most winding road to end up with this medal but this is where it all started'

Chloe and Sam Magee have their sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Photo: Frank McGrath
Chloe and Sam Magee have their sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Photo: Frank McGrath

Claire McCormack

Chloe and Sam Magee spent their childhood racing up the steps of their parish hall, a big, blue, church-like building located right in the middle of Raphoe, Co Donegal. It is the home of their local badminton club and the place where their father, Sam, first taught them how to hold a racket.

Coming from a troop of seven children, the sibling rivalry to play on the hall's one and only court was fierce. But those innocent battles ignited a competitive edge that would drive them to make Irish sporting history in a sport quietly overlooked for generations.

Sam and Chloe Magee in action Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Sam and Chloe Magee in action Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Sitting courtside, Chloe (28) and Sam (27) place their shining European Badminton Championship mixed doubles bronze medals on the table.

"My dad cried when we won, the tears just ran down his face. That's what it is, he has been part of our career since we were no age," says Chloe.

Growing up in a small rural town, steeped in badminton, hockey and boxing, the Magees excelled through underage singles, doubles and mixed tournaments in Donegal. Singles was Chloe's forte; men's doubles was Sam's. Mixed came later. Although facilities were extremely limited, by 10 and 11 they could hold their own against much older opponents.

"We were quite talented when we were young but the word 'training' was used loosely, we just played," says Sam. "Once we got to 12, 13, 14, a coach from Lisburn used to come once a month for practice so we knew we couldn't be as raw and needed to learn techniques."

By their late teens it was obvious they weren't just social players. But back then, pursuing a career in Irish badminton was a mammoth task.

"The story of badminton in Ireland is like a freak story," adds Sam. "We knew we were good but there was nothing there for us, no pathway where I could think 'oh I could become a professional badminton player'. Scott Evans paved the way but he had to go to Denmark, because that is what you had to do".

At 17, Chloe attended a camp in Belfast where she met coach Tom Reidy, from Adare. He had played badminton for the USA in the 1992 Olympic Games men's doubles. He then moved to Sweden to play professionally before becoming a coach at the Swedish National Badminton Centre. Reidy offered Chloe an opportunity to train full-time in the city of Jönköping, once considered a European hotbed for badminton.

"I didn't really know what was going on and my dad was just saying it was a brilliant opportunity to get on the international ladder and I'd definitely go once I finish my Leaving Cert," she recalls.

But for the home-bird teen, who had never travelled beyond the UK, it was daunting transition. "The first six months were really hard because I was there by myself," she says. "There were times I just wanted to go home; I didn't want to do it anymore. Tom was very blunt, he would say 'you know you're not in shape, you're not an athlete, your technical skills are not good enough, your footwork is not good enough, you need to improve all these things and that's even if you want to compete in international badminton'.

"At that time I was quite lazy, I didn't know what it was to be an international badminton player and he was like 'you can't continue what you are doing, that's not going to get you anywhere'."

Although it was a very harsh reality, Chloe heeded her parents' advice to stick it out a bit longer. Reidy always had faith in his young star's potential but self-belief was also an issue for her. Despite not having a world ranking, Chloe soon starting trouncing girls ranked in the 50s and 60s. Within 18 months, she qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She was just 19.

"It was all a bit of a whirlwind. I never believed I could make an Olympics, I never thought I'd be good enough. Until you feel that you can get out there and beat people it's hard to have that belief in yourself," she says.

The Chinese fans gave her a major boost. "In China they love badminton so when you walk into a stadium you are a superstar, and if you're white and a badminton player they just go crazy," she says.

In Beijing, Chloe became the first ever Irish woman to win a badminton match at the Olympics when she defeated Estonia's Kati Tolmoff. She was then eliminated by world No 11 Jun Jae-youn of South Korea.

Sam was chomping at the bit for a piece of the action. "All my friends were going on to study but I knew I wanted to be involved in sport," he says. "Chloe had paved the way to go to Sweden and when Tom gave me the opportunity I definitely wanted to do it.

"I loved it from the start, it was professional, you train as you wanted, there was more of an Irish crew by then and Chloe knew what was going on so it's not like I was completely new to everything."

Sam's men's doubles quickly improved and within a few months he teamed up with an exciting young French player, Sylvain Grosjean, at a junior tournament in Copenhagen - considered the European capital of badminton. The pair went on to win the 2009 European Junior Championships in Milan. The win represented Ireland's first ever gold medal in badminton at international level.

"Winning a European medal laid down a marker, you had a bit more respect in Denmark, people would see that you have to have talent to win," Sam says.

But senior is a completely different ballgame. Sam knew that if he wanted to succeed, he had to move to Denmark.

"It was much better training and more professional so the players were better. Scott [Evans] was working in a club in Denmark with some very good coaches and some very good Irish guys were interested in coming over, so Badminton Ireland funded a coach so we could train there," he explains.

Sam remained there for four years under Danish coach Jim Laugesen - former world No 1 at men's doubles. The growing success of Ireland's badminton diaspora signalled a time for change back home.

"If you are in a big country with a big set-up then everyone thinks it's possible but in Ireland there wasn't that and when Scott was doing well, I made the Olympics, Sam won a European medal… it had never been done in Ireland before. People thought if they can do it, I can do it," says Chloe.

She moved to Denmark too but she couldn't settle. "I was the only girl, it was very boy-centred so it was just difficult. I was getting very down in myself, I was losing my want to win," she says. "I needed to go home and be myself again and find a way that I could play badminton in Ireland and enjoy my life."

She moved to Dublin at the end of 2008, and continued to train with the help of older brother Dan, also a former Irish National Champion in men's doubles and a coach.

"There was a year where it was tough, it could have gone either way, I could have quit then because there was no system, nobody pushing you through or helping you to keep going," she says. "Badminton Ireland were always trying to improve their systems so it took a year or two until we got that set up in place."

The High Performance Centre opened at Marino Institute and a big push for the London Olympics 2012 ensued. Ranked 44th in the world, Chloe qualified for the singles and opened her campaign by defeating Egypt's Hadia Hosny. She lost to her second opponent, France's Hongyan Pi. "London was the best time of my life," she says. "I was happier as a person, I felt that my badminton was where I wanted it to be, the set-up was moving in Dublin and there were a lot of changes in Badminton Ireland."

In 2012, Sam moved back too. "Badminton Ireland wanted to get the ball rolling so they decided they weren't going to fund Denmark anymore," he explains. "If we wanted to stay we would have to fund it ourselves or go home and work on the system. It was a tough move because it was very bare, it was like stepping into the unknown."

As more players got involved, things progressed. Back in Dublin, Chloe focused on singles before Rio but the duo also wanted to qualify for their first ever mixed doubles at the Olympics.

"An awful lot more priority was put on our mixed and it was going brilliantly," says Chloe. "At certain points in the qualification we were 21 in the world. But my singles was struggling; I wasn't having a good year. It was decided that it was more guaranteed that I would get a place in my singles if I did a bit better in my tournaments."

The decision was a big lift to Sam's motivation. "I could see the potential, I knew we were only giving it 70 per cent in mixed and every year we were improving. I knew if we fully committed there would be no excuse," he says.

Although Chloe was delighted to qualify for the Olympics, her love for singles had wavered. "After Rio I decided to cut singles, I knew it wasn't getting any better and I wasn't enjoying it anymore. I don't think if I went to 10 Olympics I would even medal in singles," she explains.

And so the Magees, sponsored by Yonex, started training with top British doubles coach John Quinn and also worked closely with a psychologist to get the best out of each other.

It paid off big time last month, when they created history by winning Ireland's first ever medal at the European Badminton Championships in Denmark. They overcame Robert Mateusiak and Nadiezda Zieba of Poland to claim the bronze.

"On the game shuttle for me it was disbelief, I just didn't believe it at all. Even when the shuttle landed we were just looking around thinking 'did we really win?'" says Sam.

"We were like no, it couldn't have happened. There must be another round, that didn't just happen, everything had led up to that point," adds Chloe.

They couldn't wait to get back to the sweeping hills of Raphoe, where they now intend to build a state-of-the-art badminton academy.

"Everyone feels they are part of your success and we love that, the whole town has always been behind us so our big dream is to bring badminton back here when we finish," explains Chloe. "The amount of talent in Donegal is huge but parents aren't going to drive four and five hours to Dublin and back for training every week.

"There are no major academies outside Dublin and we will have something for everyone. An elite academy, an older club, a ladies' club, we want schools coming in. We want to promote our sport and we definitely have the drive to do it. The bonuses to the local economy will also be huge.

"Sport in small rural areas offers endless opportunities to a kid. They learn to look after themselves nutritionally, psychologically. When I was younger everyone played sport, now it's all computer games, your phone, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… but sport can really help kids define who they are."

Chloe plans to retire after the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and her brother is confident they will qualify for the Games.

"Now that we won our European medal we don't just want to settle," he says. "We want to keep progressing up the world rankings and push Irish badminton to the next level so we've got a chance. We have to be top 20 in the world consistently that year and there is no reason why we can't."

This summer the Magees will compete at mixed tournaments in Spain, Canada, the US and the World Championships in Glasgow in August. But they will always find time for a quick rally in their parish hall.

"It's hard to piece it all together, it's been the most winding road to end up with this medal but this is where it all started. Every time we play here it feels so special because this is my picture of childhood, these four walls, playing here and enjoying it and wanting to get better, that grit and determination never really left us," says Sam.

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