Wednesday 21 February 2018

Holding court through hard graft mixed with great skills and speed

The Magee family has sacrificed plenty in pursuit of excellence

Chloe and Sam Magee spend many hours honing their skills both on and off the badminton court. They are working to qualify for January’s European Championships to be held in Belgium
Chloe and Sam Magee spend many hours honing their skills both on and off the badminton court. They are working to qualify for January’s European Championships to be held in Belgium

Aisling Crowe

Unlimited, together we're unlimited, together we'll be the greatest team there's ever been, Dreams, the way we planned 'em, if we work in tandem: There's no fight we cannot win. Just you and I defying gravity. With you and I defying gravity, they'll never bring us down! - 'Defying Gravity' from Wicked

Light travels faster than sound. It's one of the fundamental laws of physics but stepping into the Baldoyle Badminton Centre, it appears Ireland's elite players are conducting their own science experiment, disproving Einstein's theory of special relativity. Sound waves hit you first, rushing over you with a shocking ferocity.

The noise of the racquet thwacking a shuttlecock with venomous power is so loud, so vicious that it stuns for a few minutes. The players are concentrated on the furthest five courts and it is only by advancing towards them that you realise Einstein's place as the world's greatest physicist is not under threat and that Ireland's badminton squad is training for this weekend's European Team Championships, not attempting to redefine the laws of the universe, although there will be more of that later.

Up close, the noise is intensified and more impressive, as on one court Irish No 1 Chloe Magee practises alongside her mixed doubles partner, and brother Sam, under the all-seeing gaze of their older brother and, member of the Irish coaching team, Dan while their youngest brother Joshua practises alongside.

Then vision catches up with hearing and the speed of the game becomes apparent. It is fast. Faster than fast. Dan Magee later explains that the world's best badminton players regularly hit shots that are clocked at an astonishing 300kph, that's comparable with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg speeds as they race for the Formula One world title.

Reaction times are measured in nanoseconds and the hand-eye co-ordination of a fighter pilot, allied with the precision of a neurosurgeon, is needed to prosper at the elite level. Natural dexterity is important but it also requires thousands of hours of training to hone that inherent talent.

"It's all about training so it's hours and hours of training and getting as much speed on the shuttle as possible, feeding from multi-feeds. It's really fast, especially for the doubles events," Dan, himself a former Irish international, explains. "To give you an idea, these guys are training twice a day, five days a week and they're doing everything from on-court, to strength and conditioning and weights, running, everything so it's not just the on-court stuff that makes them that athlete. It's very much what they're doing off-court as well."

The thrill of the speed, the adrenaline rush that comes with facing down those rockets from across the net and returning them with precision, power and pace is what his sister loves about the sport. Twice an Olympian, the 25-year-old Chloe is ranked 30 in the world with brother Sam in the mixed doubles event, and when her first session of the day ends, she explains the magnetism of speed.

"It's the fastest racquet sport in the world. That's why not too many people can play at such a high level because there is so many different aspects to badminton. It's all mental as well. For me, the tactical side is the biggest part. You spend so many hours on the shots and your reactions, your footwork, your speed. There's so many different parts to it," she says, her voice animated with the passion she has for the sport.

"I honestly believe that's why in the country there's not so many good players. It takes a lot of hours. It takes a lot of dedication. People don't really realise the speed until you do see it live. I think TV doesn't do it justice at all. That's why I like that GAA quote, 'Nothing beats being there'. Everything that you go to is just better when you see it live. It's good because you can see more, you can see the deception in the game, whereas on TV it just takes that away. Speed is part of the game and I think that's why I love it so much. I love the speed of the game. It's just so exciting."

Earlier she had stood at the far side of a net, racquet held across her body in her right hand as another member of the team fed shuttlecocks across the net for her to flick away. In the trajectory of each one, there was a balletic grace and for a split second every shot seemed to defy the laws of gravity as the shuttlecock hung for a moment, suspended in the air before plunging to the ground.

The Magee family has flown in the face of badminton's gravity field. From a family of eight children brought up in Raphoe in the east of Donegal, three have already represented Ireland internationally while Joshua, who is still in school, makes his senior debut this weekend. The team-mate helping Chloe practise is another family member and the second generation of the family to become a badminton international. Rachael Darragh is a niece of Chloe, Dan, Sam and Josh and she makes her senior debut at this weekend's qualifying tournament for the European finals.

Their father brought each sibling to the badminton club in Raphoe in turn to introduce them to a sport he loved. Chloe was four when she first held a racquet in her hands but a career as a professional player was never part of her plan. College, studying, working and all the elements of life her friends were going to experience were all on her horizon until she was 17 and the opportunity to move to Sweden to train and play full-time arose.

It was a difficult time for a teenager moving to a different country, not having mutual languages and playing a sport which, up until then had been a fun hobby for her. For the first few months she found it extraordinarily tough but, not for the last time, she defied the circumstances and gravity.

Working in such close proximity with family members could make for a combustible atmosphere but not with the Magee family. Both Chloe and Dan see the benefits of having a family member on your team.

"It's really easy. We never fight. It's been great. I think that coaching with your family, you can be very honest with them and they can be very honest with you," Dan points out and Chloe concurs, independently of her brother.

"It's nice to have family around because sport is a very tough game. There is not a lot of people out there that really . . . there's a lot of enemies out there, like, and it's nice to have your family there that no matter what they're definitely 100 per cent behind you. You can say it straight, you know that they can take it badly but at the end of the day you're always going to show up again, you're always going to be back on the practice courts the next day but it definitely is, it's a lot more straight than if you're working with someone that was just a different person so, yeah, definitely."

If all goes according to plan this afternoon, then the Magee family will have helped Ireland qualify for the finals of the European Championships, which will be held in Belgium in February. Before then, the family's representation on the Irish team will grow as Dan weds Jennifer King, also a member of this weekend's squad, in January.

He is another who is defying gravity and physics itself but it's a hard slog to get to the top, with no shortcuts on the journey.

"I see my little brother, my niece, I see them work so hard, how much they want it and to see them get their first cap for Ireland would be huge. I just love seeing people work hard being rewarded. People don't understand how hard it is and how much work, how much dedication they put in.

"These guys are going to school, they're training, going to school, training, coming home, doing their homework, training, going to school, training, doing their homework. Whereas every other kid, like you know, they've got their social life, they're giving up a lot for badminton and I just love to see that rewarded," she says.

Unlike gravity, that's one rule the Magee family have proved rather than defied. Their hard work, with shots that appear faster than the speed of sound, and footwork that seems to disprove theories of movement, is being rewarded while they defy gravity.

As someone told me lately: 'Ev'ryone deserves the chance to fly!' And if I'm flying solo, at least I'm flying free. To those who'd ground me take a message back from me. Tell them how I am defying gravity, I'm flying high defying gravity . . . and nobody in all of Oz . . . is ever gonna bring me down!

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