Badminton at 200 mph right speed for U.S. duo

The Baltimore Sun

In a recent TV commercial, he plays Lau, the hapless badminton player whose leg is impaled by a shuttlecock launched from the racket of baseball's "Big Papi," David Ortiz.

In his native Laos, he's known as Khankham Malaythong.

But here, in his adopted homeland, you can call him Bob.

"I am Bob now, legally," says Malaythong, 26, pulling his U.S. passport out of his pocket as evidence.

You also can call him one of more than a dozen Marylanders competing in the Pan American Games, which began yesterday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Malaythong, one of eight children, settled with his family in Rockville when he was young. He picked up badminton at the urging of his brother-in-law - who also gave him his adopted nickname - and realized, "I was kind of a natural at it."

In his midteens, he moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., and the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and then onto California, where he practices at the Orange County Badminton Club. His parents now live in Silver Spring.

The badminton Malaythong plays isn't your lawn darts-and-croquet, pass-me-another-cold-one backyard pastime.

"Trust me, it's not what you see at home and play at home," says Malaythong's partner, Howard Bach - yes, it's his real name - a 2005 doubles world champion and 2004 Olympian.

Badminton is a be-ripped and let-it-rip sport, with shuttlecock speeds approaching 200 mph. Doubles teams dart on the 20-foot by 44-foot court, using each other to set picks for ferocious smashes or deadly drop shots across the net.

In the 1950s and '60s, the United States owned the sport, winning more than 20 world titles. Since 1980, however, the game has been dominated by Asian teams.

Two years ago at California's Arrowhead Pond, Bach and then-partner Tony Gunawan, seeded 13th, broke through with wins over Indonesian and Malaysian teams to take the world championship.

Gunawan, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist for Indonesia, retired and Malaythong stepped in to become Bach's fourth partner. Last year, he became a U.S. citizen, clearing the way for him to compete at the Pan Am Games and the Olympics.

Now, "it's finding the chemistry and communication. It's knowing and trusting your partner," Malaythong says. "You work hard not to fail each other."

Says Bach, smiling: "I'm the senior one now, so I'll boss him around a little bit."

Physically and temperamentally, the two players are, as Malaythong says, "yin and yang." Born in Vietnam, Bach, 28, is compact and built like a wrestler. He jokes easily and gestures expansively. Taller and more serious, Malaythong has a deadpan delivery broken only occasionally by a youthful grin.

But they agree that acting in the television commercial for Vitaminwater was good for them and good for badminton.

Shot in Fort Myers, Fla., in March, it features Malaythong and Bach portraying the Chinese team of Lau and Yang against Boston Red Sox slugger Ortiz and Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher.

First Ortiz and Urlacher intimidate Bach, who curls up on the court, and then Ortiz blasts a shot that sticks in the side of Malaythong's leg.

"We got some good comments and some bad comments, but they are comments," Malaythong says. "At least [badminton's] out there for people to talk about."

With the Beijing Olympics one year away, the Pan Am Games are a good way for the new team to gauge its progress.

"The best is yet to come," Bach says. "We're stepping on the gas."

Badminton competition begins this weekend, with the finals on Wednesday and Thursday.

"We're fighting for respect as a team. We're fighting to make badminton more mainstream," Malaythong says. "I want the gold."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Badminton facts

It is the world's fastest racket sport. The shuttlecock can travel at speeds in excess of 200 mph.

It originated in China in 500 B.C. from a game called Ti Jian Zi.

U.S. participants: 4.7 million.

The United States won 23 world championships between 1949 and 1967.

More than 1.1 billion people watched the 2000 Olympic badminton competition on TV.

SOURCES: U.S. Olympic Committee and the National Sporting Goods Association.

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