Simon's Olympic Comeback

Simon Leung’s familiar face zooms in from the laptop screen. He's located in a Sydney hotel somewhere, in his second week of quarantine. Not long ago, this BAC alumni returned from the Tokyo Olympics after representing Australia in the Badminton Mixed Doubles Tournament with Gronya Somerville. 

Simon explains that quarantine has been better than expected, although he misses the natural light. His hotel window faces the grey façade of other buildings close by and, even with the curtains wide open, he can’t see blue sky. The sun also refuses to dip between the buildings to shine its rays into his room—so he doesn’t bother opening them anymore.

He spends his days waiting for catered airline-type food (way too little for an athlete), ordering Uber Eats, talking to friends and family (thank goodness for modern technology), and reflecting on his Olympic campaign in all its Covid strangeness.

“We came up against the Indonesian pair in our first mixed doubles match. They rank Number 4 in World Badminton rankings, and I had never played them before even though I’ve been to many tournaments. I was shaking with nerves in the marshalling area, which took a toll on the first part of that first set.

“When you go into a match you want to focus less on who you’re competing against and more on playing into the match with ‘feeling'."

This, Simon says, means that you have a high level of ‘shot feeling:’ you’re in control, concentrated, and comfortable. Other athletes describe it as time slowing down and your body and mind being in sync so that instinct takes over.

This did not happen for Simon and Gronya until they were on the precipice of defeat in the first set. The score was 20-14. The Indonesian pair (the male with many years of experience playing top teams) only had to win one more point and the set would be over. (Sets are won when the first team reaches 21 points and must be won by two clear points. There are three sets to a match.)

“It seemed impossible. That feeling of comfort in the game eluded me.”

With their opponents potentially closing off the win with their next shot, something changed for Simon and Gronya. “When you accept that defeat could be just around the corner, it’s almost like the pressure comes off. Our strategy was now that we had nothing to ‘lose’ by playing hard. So we threw ourselves into dealing with each ball as it came.”

Then the turnaround came.

“At eight points down, it all started to come together physically, technically, and psychologically.”

That kind of chemistry is a minor miracle in a doubles match when you think about how little they have played together in the past year and a half. Simon (who lives in Brisbane) and Gronya (who lives in Melbourne) have only spent a short time in training camp right before leaving for Tokyo, and a few games over a three-week stint at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra this past May. Apart from that, they have trained separately for the Olympics, considered the pinnacle competition in nearly every sport.

The two, in an extraordinary comeback, won the next eight points straight to take victory at 22-20.

“If you’d asked me if I could see this happening before the Games, I’d have said not a single chance in the world! To win eight points straight, to win the set after being that far down is unheard of at Olympic level.”

But here’s the thing: He didn’t find that focus and comfort on the court by accident or mystery. “It happened precisely because I played into it. I never gave up, even although it seemed impossible at the time. I dealt with every point, and I played freely—to see where it took me.” 

With high fives and elation, and a large portion of incredulity that they had won the opening set against a top-ranking team, Simon and Gronya went into the next set feeling stronger. “We’d established good control and feeling. We knew how it felt and what we needed to do.” 

Ultimately, experience and training prevailed, and the two Aussies lost the match to the much more experienced team. Three days later, they completed their Olympic campaign without reaching the quarterfinals. Understandably disappointed, they have brought home some great learnings. (Let’s just note here that no Australian team has reached the Olympic quarterfinals in Badminton.)

“The thing I wanted most was to go out there, play, perform to the best of my ability, and walk off the court with no regrets.”

Learnings Simon from his Olympic experience
  1. Mental strength is the biggest game-changer. You should always keep your head high, be as positive as possible, and put in everything you have.
  2. Everyone has bad days, and you may never feel like you’re playing at your best. Depending on your day, you could be playing at only 60, 70 or 80 percent of your best, and at the end of the day that is your ‘best’ on that day. Adapt, stick with it, pull off your best possible performance. That shows solid maturity and leads to a good performance no matter the outcome. We all like winning but we learn a great deal more from people we lose against. With losing, we experience the greatest growth and if we can make bring it back, we demonstrate quality and endurance. Take it away and learn from it.
  3. Your body must be at peak performance and in peak condition. (Physiotherapy for injuries, massages before and after matches to loosen muscles for recovery and in the preparation for your next match.)
  4. Coming up against high calibre players like the Indonesian pair who rank fourth in the world may be daunting but rely on the broad experience base that has led you to that point. (For Simon, that was the world championships and Worlds mix and men’s team finals that he had previously played in.)
  5. Experience is vital. Keep playing and finding ways to play against those who are better than you. Get that exposure of pushing yourself to the limits.
  6. Deal with every ‘shot.’

Simon sits his exam to join the Police Force in a few weeks and of course, he’s still studying his university course. What the future holds in terms of badminton, he’s unsure at this stage—Commonwealth Games are very appealing. 

And in the week and a half since he returned, the time to reflect has been useful. “Everything is easier said than done. All I know is that I will continue to get through defeats and celebrate wins because that’s what life is about.”