A relatively unknown 17-year-old turned out to be the biggest story at the Pan Am Championships 2021 that concluded earlier this month.
For a player whose last international event before the Pan Am was the BWF World Junior Championships 2019, Chan’s performance was a surprise, earlier-than-expected bounty for Canadian badminton. To her coach Jennifer Lee – also the coach of world No.11 Michelle Li – Chan’s runner-up finish was proof of her ability to execute the lessons she’d learnt, when it mattered, on the big stage. It is early days yet, but Lee is happy with the signs.
“We’d been talking before we left for the Pan Am, and she was confident,” Lee recalled. “But at the tournament she was not. So we had a long talk on the night after she won the quarterfinal, because in the first three rounds she hadn’t performed really well. So I talked to her and I hoped she’d understood. And then when I saw her play Iris, I knew that she had a click on it.”
Chan was born into a badminton-loving family. Her father and his sister were students of Jennifer Lee, and Chan took up the game at a community centre when she was six; when she turned eight she enrolled at the club for lessons.
Her first taste of international badminton was at the Pan Am Junior Championships (U11/U19) 2019, where she won the women’s doubles, won silver in the mixed, and lost in the quarterfinals of the women’s singles.
At her next event, the French U17 International, she won the singles and was runner-up in the mixed. That was followed by a quarterfinal placing at the Danish Junior Cup. Then, at the biggest event of her nascent career, the BWF World Junior Championships 2019 in Kazan, Chan fell in the third round.
“It was a really good experience. That was the first time I’ve played at such a high level at such a big tournament. It was definitely nerve-wracking, especially in the team event, the first couple of rounds when I was lining up to play. In the individual event I was less nervous; it was also a bit difficult to adjust to the venue. But it was a good experience because I got to play the top juniors from different countries… I think that tournament was definitely a wake-up call. After watching the final I was inspired to work harder and try to go to the next level.”
With the pandemic interrupting the calendar since March last year, Chan’s next taste of international badminton was at her first senior event – the Pan Am Championships 2021 in Guatemala. Back in January, her coach Lee had sensed that the lockdown would affect the morale of many players, and that Chan could have an opportunity to attend the event if players ranked ahead of her pulled out.
“It was quite frustrating with the lockdowns in Ontario,” said Lee. “So I told Rachel, we shouldn’t wait… she was a part-time assistant coach for some of my group lessons. So I said, hey, we’re not going anywhere, just me and you and your father can go to the club and train. And we prepared for about 13 weeks for the tournament.”
Chan knew her physical preparation had been good, but mentally, she said, she wasn’t confident as usual. Still, she cruised through to the semifinals, winning her three matches in straight games.
“I thought I wasn’t focussed enough the first couple of rounds, but they still went my way,” said Chan. “I was a bit nervous before the semifinals because I knew Iris is a very experience player. But my coach gave me advice and help me prepare the night before. Going in, I had a goal to make the final. I didn’t think about who I was playing, I just wanted to focus on the game itself.”
After narrowly losing the opening game, Chan asserted herself and booked her spot in the final with a 19-21 21-14 21-9 result.
Beiwen Zhang in the final, and Chan did make a match of it, going down 21-14 21-18.
“It felt like I was a bit more under pressure, not mentally, but in the game. Definitely the speed was quite good, so it was hard to handle that. It was really amazing to play her. Usually I get to play Michelle (Li) back at home, and there’s not that many players I can play in Canada, so it was great to play these different players. Playing Beiwen was really a good experience to learn and grow as an athlete,” said Chan.
The Canadian is inspired to follow in the footsteps of her senior compatriot Michelle Li who has set an example for excelling in professional badminton despite various challenges. The start has been promising.
Coach Lee believes Chan needs time to pick up skills, but “sooner or later, she will execute it… and she’s pretty stubborn”. She is also impressed with her work ethic and her unquestioned acceptance of what the coach charts out.
“I think this is awesome,” says Lee. “It’s easier for me to work with a player like this. And she loves to play. Her school marks are not too bad, but she wants to become a professional.
“She made that decision when she was 16.”