RIO DE JANEIRO – When Paula Lynn Obanana left the Philippines in 2006, she thought her days as an elite badminton player had ended. So did her mother, Nenita.
They knew their lives would be much different when they moved to Minnesota, where Nenita Obanana had been recruited to work as a nurse. But she couldn’t forget what Paula was told by an interviewer at the American consulate in Manila during the immigration process. “They told her, ‘One day, you will be a member of the U.S. team for the Olympics,’ ” she recalled. “We laughed, because we didn’t think she would even be playing.”
Paula went to work instead, stocking shelves on the night shift at Target and serving meals at a senior community center in Arden Hills. It wasn’t long, though, before she picked up a racquet again — and made that decade-old prediction come true. Thursday, Obanana will begin play at the Rio Olympics, partnering with Eva Lee in women’s doubles.
Obanana, 31, now trains in California but still considers herself a Minnesotan. She and Lee worked six years to win their spot in Rio, persisting after they narrowly missed a place at the 2012 London Olympics.
The pair enters the Summer Games ranked 31st in the world. When they begin play against fourth-seeded Jung Kyung Eun and Shin Seung Chan of Korea, Obanana will have a huge network of supporters in her corner. The Twin Cities Filipino community pitched in with donations and encouragement, and Nenita Obanana’s friends around the world opened their homes to the duo as they chased an Olympic berth.
“When we made the team, I felt overwhelmed,” said Obanana, who became a U.S. citizen in 2011. “I was so happy, I was just crying.
“As a kid, I watched the Olympics. I wanted to be there. You don’t think it can happen, but we did it.”
Obanana began playing badminton when she was 10, for the simplest of reasons. A coach at her school offered her a sandwich if she would try the sport. She was hungry. She was also a natural talent, making the Philippines junior national team shortly after she started.
A native of Dumaguete City, Obanana continued to compete at the elite level while attending college. In 2006, she left badminton behind to come to the U.S. with her parents.
During a nursing shortage in Minnesota, an international nurse recruitment service approached Nenita Obanana about relocating to the Twin Cities. She and her husband, Paul, moved to Arden Hills and brought Paula — then 20 — with them. Paula worked several jobs and adjusted easily to Midwestern life, too busy to miss her former sport.
But in 2008, a friend invited her to come to San Francisco and check out a badminton club there. That led her back to the game as both a player and coach. Her elite-level students encouraged her to pursue badminton at a higher level, and despite knee injuries, she decided to give it a shot.
“I started thinking then, I want those five [Olympic] rings,” she said. “But it’s so tough. I said to my mom, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ But people were so supportive.”
Obanana said she was “star-struck’’ when she met Lee, who played in the 2008 Olympics. They teamed up in 2010 and instantly made a good match. Their personalities differ — Obanana is outgoing and vibrant, Lee more reserved — but they are well-balanced on the court, with Obanana excelling in the backcourt and Lee up front.
They also held the same ambition and the drive to pursue it. Their growing success put them in position to get to the London Olympics, and family friend Jim Chalmers — who recruited Nenita Obanana — enlisted help from U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen to fast-track Paula’s citizenship application. The pair just missed qualifying, which only intensified their determination to make it to Rio.
“When Paula wants something, she makes sure she gets it,” Nenita Obanana said. “It’s very hard to stop her. And she really wanted this.”
Obanana and Lee methodically plotted their path toward Rio, knowing every tournament was critical to amassing the points they needed to qualify. Nenita Obanana worked double shifts at her nursing job at the University of Minnesota Medical Center to help fund their worldwide travel. The pair stayed with friends and relatives and nurses Nenita knew to cut costs.
After winning the gold medal at last summer’s Pan American Games, Obanana and Lee made the Olympic team in May, as the U.S. qualified in all five disciplines.
Nenita and Paul Obanana will be in Rio to watch them, as will Paula’s sister Gizelle Lou. Chalmers said many more will follow along in the Twin Cities. “There are 200 or 300 families who want to know when she’s competing,” he said. “A lot of people have taken interest. They know how hard she’s worked, and they’re very proud.”
So is Obanana, even though it’s still a little hard to believe.
“Eva told me how it felt to wear the USA uniform and hearing people say USA, USA,” Obanana said. “It gave me goose bumps.
“When we made the team, I broke down. Then Eva said, ‘OK. We made it. Now let’s get back to work.’ We feel like we’ve made a name for the U.S. in women’s doubles, and now, our goal is to be the first badminton medalists for the U.S.”