Medical scientist Anona Pak won’t let coronavirus wipe out her chances of playing badminton at the Tokyo Olympics, and an innovative national league will keep her on her toes.
Two years ago, Anona Pak was playing badminton purely for the love of the game.
The thought of representing New Zealand at an Olympic Games just wasn’t in the picture for the medical laboratory scientist – even though she was a double national titleholder, in mixed and women’s doubles.
But then the possibility of achieving an Olympic spot was put on the table by former Danish world No.1 and now New Zealand coach, Rikke Olsen-Siegemund. And Pak’s competitiveness was piqued.
By the end of last year, the 27-year-old Pak had pulled together a string of convincing performances with her new mixed doubles partner, three-time Commonwealth Games player Oliver Leydon-Davis.
So, ready to commit full-time to qualifying for Tokyo 2020, she resigned from her laboratory job at Auckland Hospital and headed off to Europe earlier this year to try to clinch a ticket to the Olympics in July.
“I never realised how possible it was to qualify for the Olympics,” says Pak. “We actually started a little later than other mixed partners. So to be where we are now is quite a quick process.”
To make the Olympics, the pair needed to be in the world’s top 50. They are currently ranked 70th.
Pak believes they had a good chance of winning more points in Europe towards that Olympic qualification. But they only got to play in the Austrian Open before their next seven tournaments were cancelled, one by one, as the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic came to light.
So Pak, Leydon-Davis and the other Kiwi trying to qualify for Tokyo, top men’s player Abhinav Manota, decided to return home for lockdown and concentrate on keeping their fitness up for when sport resumed again.
Pak even made a video in her backyard for Sky Sport Next, demonstrating her footwork drills to encourage other badminton players to stay active in lockdown (watch below).
While the Olympics are now postponed until 2021, Pak hasn’t given up her dream of being there.
“There are other chances [of qualifying] like getting the top continental spot,” she says. “So we’ll be patient and wait for the right moment, because we were definitely on our way.”
To make sure they are kept motivated and court-fit, Badminton New Zealand has created a new national league, which will be broadcast twice a week in prime time, starting this month.
And Pak will soon find out if she is going to be playing with, or against, her travelling companions.
Badminton New Zealand – alongside partners LearnCoach, Sky Sport and the New Zealand Sport Collective – have created the first-of-its-kind league on home soil.
“[The league] means a lot for us and for our badminton community,” says Joe Hitchcock, Badminton NZ’s chief executive. “We have a wide and diverse community who love badminton and this is so much more than just what takes place on court. It’s a chance to bring our volunteers, players, coaches, officials, staff and fans back together with an exciting event to unite behind.”
The country’s top 24 players will be spread across four franchise teams – the Wolves, Hawks, Tigers and Dragons – with a team draft determining who plays where.
Pak is familiar with the possible pairings because the badminton community is quite close.
There is, of course, the chance she could be playing against her own mixed doubles partner – but she doesn’t mind because she just wants to get back on court.
“[The wait] was like a hunger. Hunger for the court, like you’ve been kept in a cage for too long and then finally when the doors open, you just feel like you’re in your happy place,” she says.
The league will feature a new swift scoring system and high-intensity format, as well as a prizemoney purse of $15,000.
“This league keeps our motivation going because it’s kind of hard to train for something with uncertainty in the back of our minds,” Pak says. “So it keeps our intensity up in training and also keeps our fitness levels up – and our dreams alive.”
Pak was born in Hong Kong and moved to Auckland when she was three. Growing up, her mother encouraged her to try different sports to see which she was interested in.
“I tried swimming and she made me do a lot of racket sports, so I tried table tennis and squash. I guess the technical side of badminton is what made me more interested in it. It was easier for me to grab a hold of,” says Pak. She started badminton at 12 and was playing competitively at 14.
In her last year as a junior in 2011, she won the national triple crown – singles, girls doubles and mixed doubles.
Playing in the U23 grade a few years later, Pak gave up singles – after rupturing her achilles – and decided to focus on doubles and mixed while she completed her medical laboratory science degree at Massey University. Although she doesn’t have a set doubles partner, the New Zealand team she was a part of came away with silver at the Oceania women’s team championship earlier this year.
“I prefer playing those two [mixed and doubles] because when you’re on the singles court, you feel lonely and the courts are big. At least with a doubles partner, you can share the load,” she says.
Pak’s goal is to play against more international competition. “The atmosphere is a bit more competitive in Europe, so I’m hoping to experience a little more of that,” she says. “The Olympics are still in the back of our minds and there’s also the 2022 Commonwealth Games to look forward to.”
Olsen-Siegemund, Pak’s national coach and Badminton NZ performance manager, says Leydon-Davis and Pak still have work to do on their partnership, but the most important thing is to keep playing high-intensity badminton.
“Since forming the partnership, they have played a lot of tournaments against a wide variety of international opponents,” she says. “And both Oliver and Anona have a lot of respect for each other and they communicate well. I think this is hugely important for them to perform well and learn from their mistakes, too.
“Anona is a very consistent player who can always be relied on to put on a solid performance. She’s got a stack of experience, adapts quickly to different partners and she has really developed her game over the past year.”
Qualifying for the Olympics still has some question marks around tournaments, with Covid-19 lingering, but the Badminton World Federation have released a calendar, with games restarting in early August.
“It’s still quite early to know for sure how travelling, international border restrictions and quarantining processes are going to work – because two weeks is a long time to be shut away in an apartment,” says Pak.
But for now, she will be putting her skills to the test in front of a home crowd as the NZ Badminton League tees off.
* The LearnCoach NZBL championship begins on June 16, screening on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 7pm for seven weeks, with the grand final on July 19. The matches will air on Sky Sport 9 and the Sky Sport Next You Tube channel.