Karyn Velez of the United States is one of the new breed of badminton nomads, whom both family and sport have given multiple homes. Now she is on the road to collect Olympic points in the hopes of representing the country of her birth in London next year.
By Don Hearn, Badzine Correspondent. Photos: Yves Lacroix for Badmintonphoto
Karyn Velez spoke to Badzine just after a disappointing loss at the recent Canada Open in Richmond, B.C. She had moved Hong Kong’s #2 shuttler Chan Tsz Ka around at will to take a one-game lead but was unable to keep it up and fell 21-13, 12-21, 10-21.
“I am just not at my most fit,” admitted Velez afterward. “The last few months has been too much competition and not enough training.”
For Velez, it seems that her past badminton wanderings have caused her to embark on a special quest this year, in search of ranking points.
“This year, I was hoping to qualify to play for the U.S. team at the Pan Am Games. It’s a really big deal because it is a Grand Prix Gold-level tournament with no Asians or Europeans so it’s a good chance to catch up on points.”
Unlike last fall’s Asian Games, which was accompanied in the badminton calendar by a separate Asian Championship tournament, the Pan Am Games will furnish the point load of the continental championship, despite being a multi-sport event. Thus, there is more at stake than simply the medal prestige motivating Asia’s best in Guangzhou last fall.
“It was a little complicated, though,” said Velez. “I was told that my having played in the 2009 Sudirman Cup for the Philippines disqualified me, even though it shouldn’t have affected my eligibility for the individual event. But one organization had a different interpretation of the rule and we had to file a challenge on the eligibility issue.
“Then finally, I was told that I had been cleared to play in the U.S. Pan Am trials but unfortunately I only found out a day before I would have had to travel back to the U.S. At the time, I was playing an event in New Zealand, which I had decided to do as a backup plan to earn some ranking points.”
In fact, Oceania tournaments have provided a few key turning points in Karyn Velez’s career, including the push to her current badminton home.
“I was born in the U.S., in Philly, but I moved to the Philippines with my family when I was young and I started playing badminton there. I was ranked #1 in the Philippines but there was too much politics involved and I ended up moving away to get rid of the problems.
“When I was at a tournament in Australia a couple of years ago, I was approached by the Kuala Lumpur Rackets Club (KLRC) and they invited me to train with them in Malaysia. Since the option of representing the United States was also available to me, I took it and that’s where I am at now.”
Velez points out that being at home is not always an advantage.
“In the Philippines, I was at the Asuncion Badminton Center. The facilities and the training were good there, but there were too many distractions. I had my friends there and my family. At KLRC, there is really nothing for me to do but eat, sleep, wake up, and play badminton.”
Despite most of Karyn’s badminton development having been in Southeast Asia, mid-July’s U.S. Open felt like a home event for the young shuttler, with lots of relatives there from both sides of her family to cheer her on. As for the flag she’ll play under, that is definitely going to continue to be the American one and she is certain that eligibility will not be an issue for next summer’s London Olympics.
However, qualifying for the Olympics on points will be another challenge. Like many in the Western Hemisphere, she will be chasing after the qualifying spot allocated to the Pan Am region.
Meanwhile, some of Karyn’s most promising results have been close matches with higher-ranked Asian players. Besides pushing two of Hong Kong’s younger players to three games, the American had another near miss against former Asian Games and All England bronze medallist Hwang Hye Youn in Australia last spring.
“I definitely remember that match,” said Velez. “I knew she had been Korea’s #1 and when I got to game point in the second, I was in shock. It was the first time I was in that position to come back and beat a top player like that.”
For now, she will need to focus on catching the other North Americans, some of whom will have a shot at ranking points both at next week’s World Championships and at the Pan Am Games. World #39 Michelle Li of Canada is the Pan Am front-runner and Velez sits at #3 among Americans, behind Rena Wang and youngster Cee Ketpura. Velez also points out the additional challenge of German-born veteran Nicole Grether, should she be deemed eligible to play for Canada in the London Games.
“I have played all of these players and I know them all,” says Velez. “but in the coming year, I hope to show something new.”