The Chilliwack Sports Hall of Fame celebrates the Class of 2018 at the Chilliwack Sports Dinner presented by CBI Health Group, Nov. 22 at Tzeachten Hall. Today, a look at Chilliwack man who has been among the very best badminton players in the entire country.
Hands-down the best badminton player to ever call Chilliwack home, Gord McConnell’s accomplishments astound.
Three medals at the 1998 World Masters Badminton Championships in Portland, Oregon.
Twenty gold-medal wins in Canadian masters competition and, in 1987, being named Chilliwack’s Athlete of the Year.
Those are the highlights of a playing career spanning more than four decades.
McConnell started playing back-yard badminton with his dad and played at his high school in North Vancouver. As a 16 year old, McConnell was scouted and asked to train at the Vancouver Racquet Club.
“One of my first days there, there was a very good looking young lady sitting on the sidelines, and I thought a very good place for me to sit would be next to her,” McConnell smiled. “We talked a bit and she asked me if I wanted to go out and hit.”
McConnell thought it’d be a walk in the park.
He, a high school superstar trading volleys with a girl.
No contest right?
“We played a game and she beat me 15-0 and 15-0 and I got introduced to real badminton,” he laughed. “I’d never seen a real drop shot. She did nothing but drops and clears. I was used to short serve and smash and she never did that.
“She just ran me around like a chicken with my head off.”
From humble beginnings begin great things.
McConnell improved by leaps and bounds over the next three years, then took seven years off while he trained to be a chiropractor.
He picked up the sport again in his mid 20’s and continued to get better and better.
“Once I got into age class when I was 35, all of a sudden I was one of the most competitive players in North America,” he said. “I’d been playing against younger players all that time, and once I got into age class it was a different world.
“I could compete all over Canada and the United States.”
The crowning achievement of his playing career came at the 1998 World Masters Badminton Championships, where he won silver in mixed doubles and men’s doubles and bronze as part of the Canadian team.
McConnell, now 75 years old, looks at a framed picture sitting on a nearby chair. It includes those three medals alongside a photo of a 55 year old McConnell frozen in time, stretching out to return a shot.
“One of those silvers could have been a gold, if not for some bad luck,” he reminisced.
Through to the finals in the men’s doubles event, his partner threw a kidney stone 30 minutes before they were due to face a duo from Britain.
They played, with McConnell’s partner hunched over in pain and confined to one corner of the court. McConnell did his best against overwhelming odds, and they actually won the first game.
“My partner still went out and played and I don’t know how he did it, but we lost the next two (games),” he lamented. “Had he been healthy we would have won it easily, I’m sure.”
That was McConnell’s lone foray into world-level play, but he was a formidable force in North America, particularly at the Canadian Masters Badminton Championships.
A list of all-time gold medalists was released earlier this year to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the tournament.
McConnell was tenth on the list with three singles titles, seven men’s doubles triumphs and nine mixed doubles wins. He added his 20th medal in Vancouver last April with an unexpected but well-earned mix-doubles victory in the 75 year old division.
“I tore my shoulder badly before that event and I wasn’t even going to play,” McConnell said. “But my partner, Joanna Sullivan, who I’ve played with for over 30 years, talked me into it.
“We were just going in it for fun, not caring about winning and we kind of lucked into it. My shoulder was shot and I had no backhand at all, but I guess Joanna and I have so much experience that we were able to pull it together and win the tournament.”
McConnell could just as well have been a Hall of Famer as a badminton builder. As a coach at the Hollyburn Country Club in West Vancouver, he tutored dozens of the top young junior players in Canada, including Anna Rice.
A five time national champ and Pan Am Games gold medalist, Rice represented Canada at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.
She was 15 when McConnell started coaching her.
They’d play once a week in a 15 point game, with McConnell spotting her a 14 point lead.
She got better and better and better to the point where they were on even footing, then she went away to win all sorts of championships.
One day she paid a surprise visit to the Hollyburn Club.
“She comes walking through the door and I’m there and she says, ‘Do you want a game?’” he recalled. “I said yes, but I had a top 15 year old girl play with me so it was two-on-one.
“Anna still beat us 15-5 and 15-6.
“That’s how good she was.”
On Nov. 22, McConnell becomes a Hall of Famer. He’s proud of what he’s done as a player and a coach, and he’s even happier that his induction helps shine the spotlight on the sport he loves so much.
“I’m so pleased about that because badminton is an ignored sport, and no one in North America realized how incredible it is,” he says. “It is so fast and it is a game of constantly changing strategy, and unless you’ve played it at a high level you don’t really know what it is.
“I’m so happy that my induction might get some people thinking about badminton and what a great sport it is.”
— NHL legend Theoren Fleury is the keynote speaker at the Chilliwack Sports Dinner, presented by CBI Health Group, at Tzeachten Hall.
Tickets are available online at eventbrite.ca or by phoning 604-793-6340.