During the lockdown days of the pandemic, Amer Yaqub found himself in a pickle. Trapped at his home in Gaithersburg, he was desperate to find a physical activity that could provide some exercise and a break from the monotony of quarantine for him and his two sons. He decided to give a racket sport a try.
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Like millions of other bored Americans, Yaqub, 55, at one point turned to pickleball. But he found it far too slow for his liking. Although he grew up in Potomac, he was born in Pakistan and felt a connection to the heritage of his native country, which is in a region of the world where badminton is a serious sport. So he eventually bought a net, a few cheap rackets and some plastic shuttlecocks, and started playing casual games in his backyard.
Fast forward to a Tuesday night this June, roughly three years later. Yaqub trots onto a court in the gym at Rockville’s Bauer Drive Community Recreation Center, one of 15 rec centers throughout the county that offer of free drop-in badminton. (Private clubs, such as the East Coast Badminton Club and Capital Badminton Academy, both in Gaithersburg, also offer court time for a fee.) In one hand he holds an $80 Yonex racket, in the other a sleeve of goose feather shuttlecocks.
“I got hooked on it as a way for me to connect with my two boys,” he says. “But the minute we could play indoors was when I got a taste of the real thing.”
The recreational backyard variety of badminton has about as much in common with the world-class indoor sport as a kids’ game of Wiffle ball does with the World Series. Competitive badminton requires exquisite hand-eye coordination, physical stamina, agility and strength. (Search “Top 10 Badminton Rallies at the Olympic Games” on YouTube and prepare to be mesmerized.) It’s often called the fastest racket sport on Earth; Guinness World Records cites the fastest badminton hit in competition by a male at 264 mph.
Its speed can be dizzying, and thus it provides a top-notch cardio workout; Yaqub has shed 18 pounds since he started playing. But he’s also gained something he wasn’t expecting: friendships.
“It’s hard to make friends when you’re older,” he says. “But I’ve made friends who I meet [even] outside of badminton now.”
Falko Koehler, 56, is one of them. He’s been playing since 2009, two years after he came to the U.S. from Germany. He and Yaqub often play doubles together, and they occasionally go to dinner as well.
Mark Schneider, 42, is a Washington, D.C., native who has been playing for about a decade. He appreciates the sport for the physical effort it requires, but also for the social opportunities that it provides.
“I like having that exposure to different cultures,” he says. “You meet a lot of folks from a lot of different parts of the world. The cultural aspect is a good way to get different viewpoints.”
Indeed, on this night—like most—it’s hard to find two people who look alike. Most players are of Asian heritage. The sport is popular in China, Indonesia, India and in pockets of Europe. Worldwide, it is played by more than 339 million people, according to the Badminton World Federation. Roughly 6.4 million of those are in the U.S. It became an Olympic sport in 1992; an American has yet to win a medal.
“It’s most popular here with ethnicities that have a cultural affinity for badminton,” says Linda French, CEO of USA Badminton. “The places it’s growing the most are a lot of the tech sector cities. All along the East Coast, there are more clubs being formed and springing up.”
Players whack the shuttlecock over the 5-foot-1-inch-high net, but they also must possess the finesse needed for pinpoint placement. One of the main attractions for Yaqub is the fact that men and women of varied ages can compete against one another even at the sport’s intermediate to advanced levels. One of the regulars at Bauer Drive is Pak-Yee Chan. A native of Malaysia, he started playing in the 1960s. He’s 82 now, lean, limber and surprisingly quick, and can hold his own against players decades younger.
Yaqub’s son Zach is 19 years old and plays baseball at Oberlin College in Ohio. He beat his dad 61 straight times before the old man pulled out a victory.
“When I’m playing, I’m in complete bliss. Adrenaline flows,” says Yaqub, who celebrated his victory over Zach by posting a video on TikTok. “The minute I walk [away], my feet hurt, my shoulder hurts. Cocoon is the movie where old people magically become young. That’s what badminton is for me.”
This story appears in the September/October issue of Bethesda Magazine.