Nawal Abdiwahed was all smiles after handling a Rachel Waterman smash with ease and returning the birdie to Mai Ngo. She broke out into a little dance and pumped her arms.
The playful celebration came during a Burnsville badminton practice session. The Blaze program is a melting pot for the girls.
“We have a lot of diversity,” Abdiwahed said. “We have every single race you can think of.”
Abdiwahed is of Yemeni descent, Ngo is Vietnamese, and the Blaze’s No. 1 singles player, Waterman, was born and raised in Minnesota. Abdiwahed and Ngo also play singles. They are three of the large group of multicultural players practicing on 15 courts in the school’s main gymnasium. They have another 12 courts in the auxiliary gymnasium.
“We’re a family,” Abdiwahed said. “Everybody makes me feel comfortable, secure.”
Teammates don’t bat an eye at Abdiwahed because she is wearing a hijab and leggings.
“Nobody is judging you,” Abdiwahed said. “It’s very welcoming. You don’t feel like an outsider.”
Burnsville coach Jeff Limke has been with the program the past 20 years, the first two as an assistant. He doesn’t cut anybody.
“Everybody comes with a unique perspective,” said Waterman, a multi-sport athlete who plays soccer in the fall. Many of her teammates are participating in their first school sport. “It brings you together. It’s a collective community,” she said.
Limke believes his squad is reflective of the city of Burnsville.
“They don’t see the makeup of the team any different than what they see in their classrooms and out in the community,” Limke said. “They’ve been friends since elementary school and junior high school. As the saying goes, schools reflect their communities.”
Limke is flabbergasted more schools haven’t added the badminton program since it debuted in 1995. There are currently 24 teams, including 14 in the Minneapolis and St. Paul city conferences.
“It’s really odd the number of schools that could have badminton but choose not to,” Limke said. The Blaze won three consecutive state championships from 1997-99. “They always cite space issues or a lack of interest, which I haven’t found to be credible.”
No. 6-ranked Burnsville, Eden Prairie and Edina all have over 60 girls in the program. It’s also an inexpensive sport.
“It’s a very cheap sport for a school district to implement since most physical education departments already have the basic equipment,” Limke said. “No large field is needed, no specialized facility has to be built and maintained since we use facilities the school already has.
“The sport is a way to enjoy an activity and be with some friends without the pressure.”
Of course, unless you’re as competitive as Abdiwahed, Ngo, Waterman and their teammates. That’s just more incentive to excel.
“You have to work hard to get better,” the cheerful Ngo said. “You have to sacrifice, and never give up.”
Said Abdiwahed: “I’m very competitive. If I can win, why lose?”