Sunday 26 January 2020

Irish badminton star Scott Evans: 'I'm good enough to be in the world's top 20'

Funding, as ever, is the big roadblock for Scott Evans in his bid to reach a third Olympic Games

Badminton star Scott Evans Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Badminton star Scott Evans Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Claire McCormack

He distinctly remembers shutting the door and wanting to be left alone on December 25, 2005.

It was Scott Evans' second Christmas away from his family and he knew his mum, Cheryl, was "very upset" that her baby wasn't sitting around the kitchen table, yet again.

Homesickness was a "massive struggle" for the young athlete during his initial years in Copenhagen.

He was just 16 when he dropped out of Wesley College, packed his bags and said goodbye to life in Dublin.

At the time, Ireland couldn't provide the ambitious teenager with an avenue to pursue his sporting dreams. Instead of hanging out with friends after school, Evans had one single focus: becoming a champion badminton player.

He would eventually go on to seed 23 in the world but it has been, and still is, a relentless road to the top as the Olympic hopeful says he is currently "footing the bill" for tournaments ahead of Rio 2016.

Scott Evans hit his first shuttlecock at the tender age of five. Any time the youngster, and his older brother Lee, saw a free court at the Badminton Complex on Whitehall Road - where his father, Martyn, still runs a leading racquet store - the pair dashed out to practise their smashes over the net.

He fell in love with the game. He relished the pressure of playing an individual sport. "If I played badly it was my own fault, equally if I played well it was down to myself," he says.

The Dundrum native quickly escalated through junior ranks and by the time he turned 14 he was claiming prestigious under 19 titles in Leinster.

Despite his natural talent and intrepid dedication - training before, during and after school - the powerhouse teen knew remaining in Ireland would hamper his chances of success in the long run.

"Back then, there was nothing in Ireland for badminton, there was no full-time coach, no full-time training, there was nothing, it was very frustrating so I made the decision to stop going to school and to move to Denmark, the badminton capital of Europe, to pursue my career.

"I didn't want to get into academia at all, I hated going into class and sitting through hours of lessons, I hated everything to do with it, I just wanted to be outside playing sport."

However, the reality of emigrating as a teenager soon "hit like crazy".

"It was very, very difficult to settle in. I moved to a place called Greve. Looking back, I was too late leaving at 16, I needed to move at 14. I was already at such a disadvantage because I was meeting people the same age who had been training properly since they were 12 in Denmark.

"All I did every day was eat, train, sleep and go to the gym. I got really homesick."

Missing his dad's birthday, adjusting to changes in his diet, language barriers and adapting to a harsh winter with just five hours of daylight compounded his hankering for home.

"I knew it was what I wanted but I definitely had periods where I thought, 'Jesus have I actually made the right decision here?'" he says.

"I wasn't playing particularly well, I was only 16 playing senior tournaments and I expected to be doing better instantly. It took years for me to get into the whole professional way of thinking, living and mindset."

Although Evans was forced to grow up fast, he says his behaviour on court was "anything but mature".

"Cleaning, cooking, looking after myself, being aware of what is going on around me, that all came naturally but being mature on court and in training that took me a long time. My behaviour and attitude was still very bad up until 2012 and 2013.

"It has just been a long process but one of the things I'm most proud of is how I've become as a person compared to what I was like when I first moved to Denmark."

However, the 28-year-old's mental and emotional battle with the sport is put in some context when he starts talking about funding.

Each year Scott receives €12,000 from Sport Ireland while Badminton Ireland also pay him €6,000 for tournaments. Although he stresses his gratitude for the funding, he says "it isn't enough, especially in an Olympic year".

"It limits me a lot, I was ranked 23 in the world last summer after playing tournaments in Australia and Indonesia but by August all my funding for 2016 and 2017 had run out," he says.

"Since then I've had to pay for tournaments myself in order to qualify for the Olympics. I competed in Japan and Korea in September - two of the biggest tournaments in badminton.

"In total it cost between €2,000 and €3,000 for three weeks to cover hotels and flights. I just don't think it's acceptable when I'm ranked 23. I got the same funding when I was number 70."

Evans is generally considered the greatest badminton player in Irish history. He won the Irish National Badminton Championships in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

And his ranking means he has the opportunity to play in all the sport's biggest tournaments but because of the financial implications it's impossible for him to take part in all of them.

Late last year he also paid for a tournament in Scotland and the Irish Open.

"My motivation takes a bullet, it really, really affects me quite badly. Maybe that's my own problem for not being able to deal with it better but when you are 23 in the world and you're told you're going to have to find money from different places it can bring you right back to square one," he says.

The situation would be a lot worse were it not for his sponsors and Hegarty Financial Management.

"The one thing everyone wants is medals, if there are no medals at major events in badminton then of course there is not going to be the same amount of money as boxing for example or the GAA."

He says it's much more difficult in individual sports unless you are in the top 10 or 20; however, it takes years of investment to reach top ranks. Paying rent, bills and nursing his first ever injury have also heaped financial pressure on Scott who will compete in the European Badminton Championships in France this week - just before the cut-off date for Olympic qualifications.

"I injured my shoulder in January and was out for five weeks, it was the first time in my career where I've had such a long period that I couldn't hit a shuttle."

The funding and injury setbacks have contributed to his ranking dropping to just under 60.

"I can't go play a tournament if I know I can't pay my rent for the next couple of months. Some people might say, 'You're just mentally weak' and they might be right but I'd like to see them deal with my situation."

Over the last 12 years, there have been vast improvements in funding and resources for badminton in Ireland; however, the lack of elite players discourages him from moving back.

"The level of sparring, the people I would be training with, wouldn't be as good as what I'm training with here in Denmark. Yes I could get all the extra services like physio and coaching but if I'm not practising with players that are as good as me or better, then there's no real point, it cancels everything out."

Evans wants to see more effort put into the promotion of individual sports by focusing on the physical and mental health benefits of picking up a racquet.

"Sometimes I get so annoyed when I read papers and there is no coverage of minority sports where you have players going out and playing big tournaments and getting good results and they don't even get a mention in the Irish news.

"Instead of looking at it as just giving an individual player money or funding, it should be looked at as what that person can do for the sport and what that sport can do for the people in Ireland.

"Use us to get that word out that here is a sport that is good for you physically, you're getting in shape, it's fun and you can play it into your 60s and 70s."

Evans, though, says he is "feeling good" and is "confident" he'll be taking part in his third Olympics in August.

He lost to world number one Lin Dan in the first round in London 2012.

"It all depends on the luck of the draw I suppose but I'll give it everything I've got. If I get my body and my mind in good shape I can make a very good result," he said.

"If I meet Lin Dan in the first round it's going to be a big, big challenge but I think if my level is at it's very best I can definitely perform very, very well there is no questions about that."

For now, his primary target is the European Championships which begin France this week, where he has been drawn against Finland's Ville Lang in the first round.

Evans has targeted a medal finish and getting back up the rankings. "I'm good enough to be in the top 20 in the world."

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