As the badminton world readies for the biggest event on its 2013 calendar just three weeks away, it is one edition Europe will look on with much anticipation having reaped a record medal harvest at last year’s Olympic Games in London.
But they say nobody remembers the runners-up, being a champion is special and takes something special to be one. China have wiped out all the world titles since 2010, though, it was a pair of Europeans who spoilt the Chinese party in 2009.
And they - Thomas Laybourn and Kamilla Rytter Juhl - remain the last Europeans to do so. This year, in the lead up to the World Championships, Badminton Europe spotlight on now retired Laybourn for being the last European World Champion.
With odds stacked against him, Laybourn shares in a 3-part series how pursuing a world title in Europe takes a whole lot of sacrifices and a little thinking out of the box to approach a badminton career in Denmark, or Europe for that matter.
Part I: Laying it all down to be a World Champion
By Jan Lin
It was the beginning of spring, an uncanny season for me to meet up with the last World Champion from Europe, Thomas Laybourn, who was just months into his retirement after the Olympic Games and beginning a fresh new season in his life.
Coach, businessman, entrepreneur, husband, father, son - these are but just some of the old-new identities Laybourn carry on him, and it took at least two months before we found a day where both our schedules meet to catch up on his new life.
“The new life that is beginning now is very interesting and exciting”, Laybourn was brimming with enthusiasm sharing about life after retiring from badminton.
“Do you miss the old life?” A rhetorical entrée question to ask.
“No”, he said in such full confidence catching me by surprise.
“I mean when I look back, I do miss being a part of the national team when we go to tournaments, my partnership with Kamilla and other players, these were very, very unique as we know each other so well and traveled so much together. I miss when we win big tournaments too”, he said.
“But there is a whole bunch of things that I don’t miss and I am glad that it’s over”, concluded the charismatic Dane.
Recollecting his journey after becoming world number one, European and World Champions, Laybourn said: “It was just so hard when you have to fight against injuries, especially in my last few years qualifying for the last Olympic Games. Every morning, you have to fight to get out of bed to get up and practice.”
“I’m a guy who if I do something I have to do it 100%. That’s one of those things that I don’t miss, being 100% about everything. Especially your body, what you eat, how I play with my daughter, all the traveling had me missed my family, all the things that you have to lay down, all these things I really don’t miss”, he said.
“When I was younger”, shifting his thoughts to the early days, “my friends always said they’ve missed me or I’ve missed out as I wasn’t able to hang out with them.”
“But I wouldn’t say I have lost friends, but maybe I saw which friends were the best, and I kept those who could understand my life”, he added.
And if one was to think the sacrifice gets easier over the years with experience, it certainly wasn’t the case for the 35-year-old.
“It actually became more difficult traveling when I was older”, he explained, “I had my daughter, she was really small, and I missed her first words, her first walk. I really missed out a lot on the first 3 years of her life.”
“I just went on a big holiday in the United States with my family,” he said, “but for the 8.5 years I’ve been with my wife, we’ve only been on a holiday for like 3 days in France! Because I had to train all the time. So I’m just really enjoying time with my family now, it wasn’t possible with traveling 100 days a year for badminton.”
“And I met my wife in the badminton world, she also plays badminton but not at the same level. I think it helped me as it was easier on her as she already knows the sport and many of the former top players when we met”, Laybourn added.
There is no doubt being a professional athlete in any sport demands sacrifice and it is not a bed of roses for all its glamour, however, being one in a sport where the administrative stakes are stacked against you, the sacrifices may defy logic.
“When I look back now, I sometimes think: How did I do it!” He laughed. “It was really, really tough especially for Danish players to get that sort of success.”
Just some 2 to 3 decades ago, the share of power was much more even on court especially between Europe and Asia. But the sport has since evolved and so has the demands being a badminton player which may seem unfavourable in Europe.
In juxtaposition to his Asian counterparts, and some top European players who receive considerable funding and a regular salary from their governments and national associations, the Danes are simply left to fight for their own survival.
Yet, it is this tiny country (by population) tucked away in northern Europe that continues to provide spills and spoils to a sport overcrowding in Asian success.
Granted Denmark is a social welfare state with free education and healthcare, and an educational philosophy where its people “learn-through-play” as kids that perhaps had left its sports administrative bodies an obligation to stay true to.
“Everyone is really unique but Viktor Axelsen is a good example for the young ones”, Laybourn say of Europe’s World junior champion in 2010 who is also a Dane. “At his young age, he is so dedicated to sport even more than I was, and I know he has also made some sacrifices as I’ve spoken to him before about them.”
“I don’t know how we do it”, he added. “We get some tournament funding but we don’t earn any money from the government or the Danish federation. All of us in Denmark have to really fight, and we have to take our education on the side.”
“But on the other hand I think”, he paused in a pensive mood, “I think that’s what made us so good in Denmark.”
We will publish Part II "Thinking out of the box to stay in the game" on Wednesday.
Article by Jan Lin. Photo by BadmintonPhoto.