Thursday 22 March 2018

Future of badminton written in historic town of Leuven

Leuven has played a part in the future of Irish badminton

Scott Evans
Scott Evans

Aisling Crowe

Under cover of darkness, they scurry down to the shoreline, some tripping on unseen roots, others stubbing toes on stones not daring to cry out for fear of alerting the enemy when they are so close, but so distant from freedom. The boats which await them, anchored in the turbulent waters of Lough Swilly, will take them away from Ireland perhaps forever.

Red Hugh O'Neill and Rory O'Donnell, fearful of betrayal and threatened by the growing presence of the Crown forces, are fleeing for friendlier territories, seeking safety in the lands of the Spanish crown. A meeting in northern Spain with a Franciscan friar brings them north to the Spanish controlled Netherlands and the newly formed Irish college in Leuven, in what is now known as Belgium.

Four centuries have passed since the Earls' flight from Donegal and another man from that county sits in a restaurant in the Belgian town nervously checking his phone. Sam Magee can only anxiously glance at the score updates from Belgium's pool game with England flashing up on his screen.

The badminton player is helpless, unable to act to change his and his team-mates' destiny in the European Mixed Team Championships. Magee, from Raphoe, moved from Denmark to Dublin two years' ago and Irish progression to the quarter-finals would be vindication of that decision and the work Badminton Ireland is doing.

"There was a changed structure in Ireland after the London Olympics and I had the choice to stay in Denmark and pay money to play badminton or return to Ireland and be part of the new centre in Marino," he explains.

The Franciscan friars who received royal approval from the Spanish monarchs to establish their Irish college in Leuven had a vision for the educational centre. Leuven was to be the home of their grand project, a reclamation of Irish identity and culture from the stereotypes of barbarism and misconceptions that abounded on the continent.

Leuven over the last week was a significant step in a grand project for Irish badminton. The Belgian town famed the world over as the birthplace of Stella Artois sees Irish badminton create its own piece of history with the team making its first appearance in the championship and the structural changes are even more fundamental.

Magee takes up the tale: "There is supposed to be a national indoor arena and a new badminton centre in Abbotstown. We'll know more once the building is up but it would be better to have a bigger hall, it would help to train in it as it would mimic the halls that the tournaments are played in."

Drawn in a group with the hosts Belgium, and four times silver medallists England, there was no gentle introduction to the European stage for Ireland. Victory over Belgium on Wednesday afternoon was followed by crushing defeat to England on Thursday morning. Injuries to Ireland's best players - Magee's sister and mixed doubles partner Chloe and Scott Evans - made their task even more strenuous.

Across the table from Sam Magee sits Scott Evans. The 27-year-old from Dundrum swapped the 5.0am starts for training before school and morning classes which provided him with some much needed sleep for Denmark nine years ago and there he remains.

A man who searches for answers and questions outside of his sport, it was to Keith Barry that Evans turned when his on-court aggression threatened his Olympic dream in 2011. A black card, rather more serious than the GAA version, in a tournament for swearing at officials earned him a ban from the sport and a fine.

"I met him in a café in London and we got talking," he says. "I still keep in touch with him, he's an amazing guy. He focuses on the subconscious mind and it's fascinating. I regularly got yellow cards but I've only had one since I started using the techniques Keith showed me. I think a lot about different situations and now I'm able to deal with situations that arise on court," Evans, who has a clothing company, Hosbjerg, with his girlfriend Camilla explains.

Tom Reidy, their coach and mentor is alongside. Born in America, he grew up in Limerick, and is now resident in Sweden, another of the generations of Irish diaspora, he returns to Dublin every seven or eight weeks to give the Irish team the benefit of his knowledge and experience playing for Ireland and coaching in Sweden. A quietly spoken but thoughtful man with a degree in criminology, he works as a prison officer in Gothenberg.

The conversation ebbs and flows from a popular Swedish TV show where criminals advise homeowners on security measures through the shock victory of Scotland over Germany earlier in the afternoon to the start of the hurling league this weekend, but still the same question is repeated: "What's the score?"

It's almost midnight when the draw is confirmed and it's the worst that the gods of the bowl could have fated, Denmark. Decisions about teams and calls on risking injured players must be made. Evans is willing to risk the wrath of his coach back in Denmark for a chance, however miniscule of the bronze medal that toppling the Danes would bring.

"It's always been one of my big dreams to win a team medal with Ireland. Since I was 15, I've seen the team spirit that other countries have on big occasions and thought that it must be an amazing feeling to do that with Ireland. We're a small country with only six on the team and it would be incredible," he confides.

The sun dappled walls of the Irish college's cloister were built after O'Neill left Leuven for Rome in 1608, but imagination cannot resist conjuring an image of the displaced Earl, feeling the warmth return in the sun's rays and the evening light linger a little longer, knowing now must be the time for the precarious overland journey to Rome.

Ireland's badminton team, though beaten by Denmark in Friday night's quarter-final, also have an arduous but exciting journey ahead of them. Starting in May, Magee, Evans and the others will traverse the globe hoping to secure passage to Rio and an Olympic berth in 2016.

"We have a good opportunity in mixed doubles, our rankings are on the edge for qualification. It starts in May and is pretty crazy from then until May 2016," says Magee who plays alongside his older sister, a challenge that has eased with the passing of time. "It's good and it has got better every year. The more experience you get the easier it becomes."

The Annals of the Four Masters were written in Leuven. The creation myth of Irish history, detailing Ireland's story from the moment Adam found Eve in the Garden of Eden to Red Hugh O'Neill's entrance into Rome. Perhaps when the revision comes to be written, badminton won't figure prominently but in the annals of Irish badminton the future was written in Leuven last week.

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