RIO OLYMPICS 2016: 10 DAYS TO GO

Olympics: Smashing payoff now has Liang Xiaoyu playing to win in badminton

Liang Xiaoyu, who will be making her Olympic debut in Rio, at the void deck in Marsiling Crescent, where the 20-year-old has been sharpening her badminton techniques since 2007.
Liang Xiaoyu, who will be making her Olympic debut in Rio, at the void deck in Marsiling Crescent, where the 20-year-old has been sharpening her badminton techniques since 2007. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Some started in a dingy shooting range, others honed their badminton skills at a void deck. The common goal? The Olympics. This, the third of seven daily profiles, shows how far some of Singapore's 2016 Olympians have come. Today, the focus is on shuttler Liang Xiaoyu.

Singapore's class of 2016: Liang Xiaoyu

A badminton racket and some nimble footwork have got Liang Xiaoyu through the road to Rio, but it was a risky gamble that first put her on that path.

It began with a wager of high stakes: Her 10-year-old self and an antsy father on a plane, leaving home and everything that was familiar for the unknown.

Some gambles are made on hunches, others on calculated risks. This one banked on hope and relied almost on blind faith.

For when Liang Huajun uprooted his young family from China's Jiangsu province in 2007, all he had was a desire to give his only child a better environment to grow up in, amid hearsay that Singapore was that place.

IN IT TO WIN IT

This is the competition of a lifetime, you can't go in thinking you're going to lose and learn. You have to want to win.

LIANG XIAOYU, national badminton player will be playing for victory in Brazil.

  • MY SPECIAL PLACE: MARSILING CRESCENT

  • 730217

    POSTAL CODE

    This has been home for Liang since her family uprooted themselves from Jiangsu province in China in 2007.

    While other kids would play catching or hide and seek, the void deck was where this shuttler often trained.

    Under the supervision of her father, who is also a badminton coach, Liang would spend her time rope-skipping or simply fine-tuning her strokes.

  • BADMINTON

  • FIRST OLYMPICS

    • Zarinah Abdullah (1992, singles, second round)

    • Hamid Khan (1992, singles, second round)

    • Donald Koh (1992, singles, first round; doubles with Hamid, first round)

    BEST PERFORMANCE

    • Ronald Susilo (2004, men's singles quarter-finals)

    • Li Yujia/Jiang Yanmei (2008, women's doubles quarter-finals)

    A HISTORY

    • Shuttlers have competed since the sport joined the programme in 1992.

    • Singapore's best chance came in Athens 2004, when Ronald Susilo upset world No. 1 Lin Dan in the second round. But the only Singaporean to have beaten the Chinese great at the Olympics suffered a heartbreaking loss in the quarter-finals to Thai Boonsak Ponsana.

    TEAM SINGAPORE

    Men

    • Derek Wong (singles)

    Women

    • Liang Xiaoyu (singles)

    WHEN THEY COMPETE

    Aug 11-20

He recalled: "Xiaoyu was still very young then. My biggest worry was what the long road she had ahead of her would turn out to be like."

Within months of father and daughter's arrival here, Xiaoyu's mother also gave up her job as a warehouse manager in China to join them, the family relying solely on Liang Sr's modest - and initially unstable - income as a badminton coach at local clubs and schools.

Said Xiaoyu, now 20: "My parents gave up everything we had for my sake and just came to Singapore without knowing if things would work out.

"Thinking back, it was really quite a big risk."

The close-knit family often tease Liang Sr now for being a man of foresight, but back then, there was no guarantee this bold move would bear fruit. Even then, young Xiaoyu could read from her father's tell that it was an incredibly insecure period.

"I was just about nine or 10, but I knew what was going on," she said. "I felt it all too - the unease of being in a new place and everything around you is foreign. It wasn't easy, and I know my dad was under a lot of stress."

She enrolled in a local school and now makes light of the initial shock that overcame her.

"I had no idea what was going on around me because everyone was communicating in English," said Xiaoyu, who is now conversant in the language. "It was a confusing time. I didn't know what was going to happen."

She found solace in badminton - the one thing that did not change. It was the constant that soothed her, usually through victory, in school colours and in the numerous tournaments she entered and won with ease.

Winning came naturally to Xiaoyu, who was an age-group provincial champion by the time she arrived in Singapore. Against her peers, she was good enough to be the world's fourth-ranked junior.

But when she reached the senior level, the step up was so arduous that the shuttler, who last year put her studies on the back burner to focus on sport, ruled out a run for the Olympics so soon. That dream, if possible, felt probable only in 2020.

She said: "I was beaten a lot when I started playing the senior tournaments. It was so hard just to get even one victory. You go, you lose, and you just learn. A year ago, I definitely didn't think I would be able to be at this Olympics."

Ranked outside the world's top 100 then, Xiaoyu has now leapt to No. 30 and is the only member of Singapore's 2014 Youth Olympic contingent to graduate to this year's Summer Games.

Lady Luck might have favoured her, but her road to the Olympics is as much a result of toil.

She said: "I've been very lucky to have been given the opportunities that I've had. There was no knowing that all this would happen when I moved here.

"But it was definitely not by chance. In sport, you only get returns if you invest. Very often, what you get back isn't even proportionate to what you've poured in."

Perhaps the uncertainty the family endured in their big move has hardened her, but even from young, Xiaoyu has never been one to fear a more formidable foe across the net. Just last October, she upset 2013 world champion and world No. 4 Ratchanok Intanon in the Thai's own backyard at the Thailand Open.

It is this fearlessness that she will bring to the court when she makes her maiden bow at the Olympics.

She said: "Almost everyone at the Olympics is going to be older, stronger and more experienced than me, but I can't go in thinking that.

"This is the competition of a lifetime, you can't go in thinking you're going to lose and learn. You have to want to win.

"I'm going there to fight, I'm going there to win matches - that is how I'm going to play."

A risky gamble paid off richly, putting Xiaoyu on the cusp of the biggest event of her career. But she no longer leaves anything to chance.

As much as the odds are against her, this girl is showing up to win.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline 'Smashing payoff now has her playing to win'. Print Edition | Subscribe