Meeting Rachel Choong, World Badminton Champion

It’s a beautiful day in Liverpool, but I can’t help being a bit nervous. I’m here to meet England’s most highly decorated Badminton player, Rachel Choong. I shouldn’t have been worried: she’s a delight to talk to, warm and funny, and open about her experiences of almost entirely self-funding her international para-badminton career.

Rachel has a rare condition of dwarfism called 3-M Syndrome: she’s 4”2 and weighs only 35kg. She plays in the short-stature badminton class, known as SH6, competing internationally at the World and European Championships since 2008.

“I started playing when I was six years old. My parents play and my older sister was having some coaching at the local club, so they all encouraged me to go along with her. I couldn’t put the racquet down and it really just went from there. I was playing able-bodied badminton and I didn’t even know para-badminton existed.”

Rachel is the first English player to win three gold medals at a single world championships!

She started out playing at club level, and then made it to junior county level, playing against people over a foot taller than her.

“I think playing against able-bodied peers made me a better badminton player because I was always trying to keep up with them. I do think it made the badminton player I am today.”

It was at a county training session when one of the coaches told Rachel about a para-badminton tournament that was including short stature players.

“It just opened my eyes completely to a whole different world. I still remember walking into the hall for the first time, seeing wheelchair badminton being played, cerebral palsy players over on one side and short stature players on the other. And I could feel my eyes widening: I was just in awe of all those players. Regardless of disability or background they were all brought together by badminton.”

Rachel joining in at the Festival of Inclusive Badminton in 2015

It was the Four Nations para-badminton tournament, and Rachel did so well she started to think seriously about where she could take her badminton career. Since then, Rachel’s gone on to compete in singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles at the World Championships and European Championships. She’s the first English badminton player ever (either able-bodied or disabled) to win three gold medals at a single World Championships (which she did in Stoke Mandeville in 2015).

Short stature badminton is played on a normal court, with the net at the usual height for able-bodied badminton. This means, as Rachel joked, there’s much more space to cover. Technique also changes and becomes more challenging, such as getting the depth of smash shots right.

“We make it work and in my opinion, the short stature event is one of the most competitive, and one of the most entertaining, in para-badminton.”

Rachel’s love for the game shines through in how she has almost entirely self-funded her badminton career. She has very supportive parents, but was determined to pay her way as much as she could, so got a Saturday job aged 16 and has held full-time jobs alongside her badminton career since. The problem is that there’s never any time off:

“It’s a catch-22 because you need to work to fund the tournaments, but you need the time off to be able to actually train and play.”

This has become even more stark during the pandemic. According to lockdown rules, only athletes picked for the Olympic and Paralympic teams qualified as ‘elite’ athletes and were able to continue training. The women’s short stature event was not included in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, which meant that Rachel didn’t get a place on Team GB and hasn’t been allowed to train properly since March 2020. For Rachel, the hardest part has been watching the other female short-stature players across the world who have been able to train.

“I have this feeling of being left behind a little bit. And when I see the lads who are on the GB programme, I just feel a bit neglected. It’s been really tough.”

One of the reasons why women’s short stature para-badminton wasn’t included in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic line-up is that the event has only seen a rise globally in the last couple of years. The events for Tokyo 2020 were decided in 2017, and since then, the sport has seen a real rise in the number of female players in short-stature events. Whilst it’s unfortunate for Rachel now, it looks promising for the future of women’s para-badminton.

“It was a dream come true when Rach agreed to come to our first Festival of Inclusive Badminton. Held at the Cambridge University Sports Centre we had over 120 participants, but what made it special was we had players of all abilities playing together, and to have a World Champion within that, was truly awesome.

The event formed part of my challenge to do all 34 Olympic and Paralympic sports to raise awareness that sport is accessible. Having an artificial hand made to hold a badminton racket was key to being able to do so many sports. And badminton is so inclusive – easy to play, extremely hard to play really well – it can be adapted in so many ways. For my challenge I played with Liz Cann (Commonwealth bronze medallist) against Rach and Daniel Lee (para-badminton player), which was a complete thrill, as I was able to see close up the standard these guys are capable of. But what really impressed was Rach’s willingness to play with all-comers, whether disabled or not, whether novices or club players.  She epitomises inclusion.  Her presence made an extraordinary day, truly special, through her ability, openness, willingness to join in, and her sense of fun.”

John Willis, CEO and founder of Power2Inspire

Para-sport, for Rachel, is about being parallel: it’s not necessarily just another word for disabled.

“More often than not, ‘para’ does come to mean disabled, but it’s more than that. ‘Para’ for me is ‘equal to’: you are a para-athlete. It’s good that so many sports have a para equivalent to their sport, but I also appreciate it when I see the governing bodies putting both the able and para sides of a sport under one umbrella.”

This also feeds into Rachel’s understanding of ‘inclusive sport’ that is able to include everyone, regardless of race, disability, everything.

“Everyone is able to compete in sport, safely, without prejudice or judgement. It can also bring together people from all different types of backgrounds, which will help us all grow and learn. A big part of inclusion is wanting to educate ourselves, to be more understanding and just have everyone involved.”

Photo: Alan Spink

She acknowledges that the world still needs a lot of improvement when it comes to diversity and inclusion, but is really pleased with the big push being made in sport, and hopes it will be successful.

Rachel’s first experiences of badminton were all playing with able-bodied groups, and she still plays local league to keep herself fresh and on her toes. Having a standardised court really helps badminton to be inclusive, as anyone can then join in and play, regardless of ability.

Badminton has also been a welcoming and inclusive sport regarding race, Rachel has found. As an ambassador for Sporting Equals and Asian Sports Foundation, she was asked if she’d ever felt as though she’d encountered racism in badminton.

“The answer I gave is honestly no, I feel like badminton is very inclusive and just really safe.”

We need to normalise para-sports, disability sports and inclusive sports, Rachel thinks. Asking questions and being willing to learn are crucial, along with getting involved with inclusive and para-sports. The upcoming Paralympics will be a great opportunity for this: the athletes work so hard to raise awareness for para-sports and Rachel said that the more awareness there is, the more inclusive sport can become.

Rachel with participants at the Festival of Inclusive Badminton

Rachel on Power2Inspire:

“I think it’s great what Power2Inspire are trying to do with all their events. It’s really cool. The Inclusive Badminton Festival is great. Yeah, it just makes more people aware of badminton. Power2Inspire is also helping on a local level, trying to get sports to be more inclusive. I know currently that John is working with Badminton England, and with their help, we can get more clubs to be considered more inclusive and help the coaches adapt and develop if a disabled person was to go to their club and want to participate. So once we grow that, which I think the badminton inclusion festivals will help us do, yeah, we’ll be in a really good position to help grow para-badminton in England!”

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Anna Willis

Freelance journalist and story teller; on Twitter @annawillis101