Bao Nhia Thao is maybe 5-foot-2, with an enigmatic smile—smooth and benign.
“Nine-three,” she said quietly, noting the score before tapping the birdie over the net.
Her opponent, a tall girl, returned with a deep clear. Back and forth, racquets connected with the birdie in mesmerizing thwaps. On the fifth stroke, Thao’s opponent drove the birdie cross-court to her right. Fast, so fast, Thao’s racquet hissed, firing the birdie straight and hard. The tall girl flinched as it hit her chest, her racquet undeployed.
“Ten-three,” said Thao.
Thao, a senior, is second singles on St. Paul Johnson High School’s varsity badminton team. On May 15, the Johnson Governors won their ninth Minnesota state team title, capping off an undefeated season. On May 17, they completed the triple crown, winning the state individual singles and doubles titles. Badminton is by far the winningest athletic program in the school’s 121-year history.
The sustained dominance isn’t the only thing that sticks out about Johnson’s badminton program. Twenty out of 20 girls that make up the current varsity and JV squads are Asian—most are Hmong—as were the vast majority of all the school’s badminton teams since the late 1970s. That’s a heavily skewed demographic, even considering the school’s 54-percent Asian American population.
Badminton routinely draws 100 girls at the start of the season in March, making it Johnson’s most populous athletic program, even edging out football. These girls, first- and second-generation Americans from St. Paul’s gritty East side, have created more than an athletic dynasty—they’ve mastered a niche sport and built a point of community pride and a platform for their future success.
“I walk by my medals—they’re on my wall at home—and think, I remember when I won that,” said Genda Lee, an alum of Johnson badminton (class of 2014) who’s now a senior at the University of St. Thomas. “When we walked in with our maroon jerseys, we were so proud. We worked so hard—of course, we wanted to win. Other teams, I think they were playing for fun, and it is fun. But I was thinking, ‘I’m winning this match for me, for my school, my team, and for my parents—they paid for this uniform.’ Badminton was my identity. I’m Genda, I’m an athlete, I play badminton.”
Kevin Anderson, reporter, blogger, historian, and director of the Minnesota state badminton tournament, knows a lot about high school badminton in the state. Records about its start as a high school sport are scant, but apparently Minneapolis city schools first held a tournament in 1975, while St. Paul high schools held their own city tournament starting in 1978. According to those bare-bones records, Johnson High School has won 24 St. Paul city championships since 1978. (Neighboring Harding High has the second-most wins at 11.) The late-1970s timing indicates badminton was likely introduced to comply with Title IX; it’s a sport that can be played indoors in the spring when there’s less demand for gym space, and one that requires little investment in facilities or equipment.
“Since I’ve been around, badminton in St. Paul has been dominated by Hmong players. The St. Paul city conference generally has the best players and the best teams in the state,” Anderson said. “It’s serious business in St. Paul. Middle schoolers have hours of training before they even get to high school, and they probably play more in the off season. Their parents have either played or know of it, so it’s a more familiar sport than, say, basketball or track and field. For a lot of the girls on the C squad, badminton is the only sport they participate in.”
Hmong, an ethnic group that lived in the mountains of Laos and assisted the U.S. in fighting its “secret war” in the country during the 1960s and 70s, started arriving in Minnesota in 1975, the same year that badminton was introduced to high schools. Badminton enjoys great popularity in Asia, and Hmong refugees brought that enthusiasm with them. There are now more than 66,000 Hmong in Minnesota, the largest community in the U.S., concentrated in the Twin Cities metro area.
Many Hmong lived as farmers in Laos; some were illiterate in their native language. In 1990, only 19 percent of Hmong women in the U.S. had a high school diploma, and 44 percent of Hmong men. At that time, an estimated 65 percent of Hmong lived in poverty. Hmong women traditionally married young and had large families, limiting their educational and economic outlook. But as of 2010, more Hmong women than men earned bachelor’s degrees, and poverty in the Hmong community dropped to 31 percent (still staggering in real numbers). In 1991, Choua Lee was elected to the St. Paul School Board, the first Hmong elected to any public office in the United States.
Like their east St. Paul neighborhood, Johnson High School’s demographics do not speak to a gilded pathway: Thirty-one percent of students are English learners, and 82 percent are on free or reduced lunch. Fifty-four percent of students are Asian American, 24 percent African American, 10 percent Hispanic, 10 percent white. But 60 percent of this year’s 1,302 students took part in early college programs.
The top badminton players are also strong students—the varsity team includes three of Johnson’s top 10 academically. They’re involved in other sports and clubs, often holding down a part-time job on top of everything else. Unlike some other high-school sports stars, though, private coaches and expensive training camps are not part of these girls’ lives.
Nou Chee Yang is a student of badminton, and serious about her study. A senior, she’s Johnson’s number-one singles player, and now, state singles champion. Drop shots, fakes, deadly smashes, backhands from the deep left corner—a blind flick of the wrist that sends the birdie neatly over the net where it drops like a rock—Yang can do it all, with the intuition honed by hours and years of practice, and calculating tenacity.
“You could mess with your opponent mentally—you might be able to win that way,” Yang said discussing strategy, “but I think it mostly applies to high school, because professional players know better.”
“I heard about badminton when I was a little kid because my dad played,” Yang said. “Unofficially I’ve been playing my whole life, but for a team, I’ve played since 7th grade.”
Yang followed her older sister, Chou, who was Johnson’s number-two singles player in 2016. Though she played soccer in the fall for two years and did gymnastics in the winter for one, badminton has always been her primary focus.
She is the only member of Johnson’s team who consistently plays far beyond the two-hour practices during the two-month season. During evenings and in the off-season, Yang plays at community centers around the Twin Cities with advanced adult players (leaping, 110-mph smashes are, unbelievably, returned). According to head coach Mark Fischbach, the year-round hours of practice are just part of the reason for Yang’s success.
“It’s a combination of natural athletic ability, the time she puts in year round, a strong mental game, competitive drive, and maybe more than anything, she really wants to improve,” Fischbach said. “That’s the thing with Nou Chee—she’s very coachable. As good as she is, there’s not an ounce of arrogance. She’ll take advice and use it.”
Yang’s dedication is strictly an avocation, not a career move. Though many colleges have badminton clubs, it’s not an NCAA sport, and professional opportunities in the U.S. are a reality for maybe a handful of people. Yang looks to badminton for personal fulfillment, and for socializing; she’s got other plans for her professional career. Ranked 10th academically in a class of 268, she already takes classes at St. Paul College, and will attend Hamline University in St. Paul in the fall.
She’s the middle child of seven—her siblings bring the youngest, not yet in kindergarten, to watch her matches. On top of academics, sports, and extracurricular clubs, her family responsibilities include babysitting, cooking, and cleaning the house. Not surprisingly, she seems mature for her 18 years, and doesn’t engage in the usual high school frivolity. She’s focused: “I play badminton because it’s a sport I really love. It’s the first sport I learned how to play.”
Josepheena Thao—everyone calls her Lala—is another senior and Johnson’s number-one doubles player. She and her partner, Nou Gee Xiong, battled from a second seed to win the state doubles title this year. She was Johnson’s 2018 Athena Award winner, presented to one senior for exceptional sports and academic achievement.
“Of course, I didn’t vote for her,” Fischbach deadpanned as he announced Josepheena’s award in the day’s pre-practice instructions. Later, he told me, “That whole family is amazing. Dad’s an engineer, mom works in the schools, all the kids are super smart. You should see Josepheena’s resume.”
Ranked ninth academically, including honors classes and post-secondary university courses, she’s been the captain of the tennis team and played varsity first singles; captain and varsity all-around on the gymnastics team; and this year, her fourth playing badminton, she’s co-captain of the team. Add in numerous school clubs, a part-time job, and, as the middle of eight children, occasional care of younger siblings, and her schedule begins to look daunting.
Like many of the Johnson players, Josepheena followed two older sisters into badminton, starting in middle school. Being a three-sport athlete, though, she doesn’t play outside the season, and relies on lightning reflexes, birdie intuition, cross-sport athleticism, and good communication with her partner for their on-court success.
“I like that badminton is a team sport but also an individual sport, and that you can meet other players and connect with them,” she said. “Not only that, but at Johnson, with our record, it pushes us to challenge each other more.”
Talking and laughing and swigging from her water bottle, Josepheena is usually the center of a scrum of teammates. As they dispersed to courts around the gym for practice, she and Bao Nhia took up position opposite a pair of juniors who will likely be first doubles next year. After a fierce rally that ended with Josepheena diving for a shot, she and Bao Nhia collapsed in laughter.
“This is what happens,” Fischbach observed dryly.
On this day, he and assistant coach Matt Smith shuffled JV and varsity players, trying out potential pairings for next year. Another assistant, Joe Buzicky, worked with the 60 or so members of the C squad in the fieldhouse. Fischbach encourages alums of the program, many of who remain in the St. Paul area, to stop by and help out—and they do.
Ka Lia Her, a past state champion, had Nou Chee on the defensive; junior varsity doubles lost to varsity doubles again and again, but by a smaller margin each time. There’s a palpable sense of responsibility by upperclassmen and alums toward the younger players (there’s rarely a freshman phenom in badminton; the skills and mental strength take years to develop), to reach back and give them a hand up, rather than simply moving on. The girls themselves take responsibility for passing on championship level skills, for modeling the dedication required, for keeping the program rolling. Like a family. And if there’s anything these girls know, it’s that success depends on everybody in the family helping out.
“Fisch, shall we play again?” two flushed players called out.
“What was your score?”
“Twenty-one to five.”
“Did you like playing together?”
There are 10 varsity spots and 10 JV spots—four singles players and three doubles teams in descending rank. At the beginning of the season, players challenge each other to determine rank—usually two wins in a row earns the winner the higher spot. At Johnson, where some of the best players in the state are on the same team, internal competition could be cutthroat, but the girls, past and present, described the team as welcoming and supportive—like a family.
“People have bad days, but overall, we support each other and love each other,” said Bao Nhia. “One of the big things is, I learned to see my teammates as teammates, where they can help me improve, instead of seeing them as competitors that I want to beat.”
Bao Nhia has a dreaminess about her that belies no-nonsense pragmatism and one of the most lethal smashes on the team. She’s interested in art and photography, and described the sense of joy she felt when she and a friend discovered badminton in fourth grade—“running off into the field, hitting the birdie high in the air.” Joy, yes, but the sport has armed her with the sort of lessons from the trenches that make for good quotes: “You win by trying. You learn by losing,” she told me one day.
The second of six children, she said she doesn’t have a lot of family responsibilities, but does have a part-time job. She used to play badminton in the offseason at community centers around St. Paul, but stopped this year because she couldn’t keep up with her homework. Parents, or spectators of any variety, rarely come to Johnson’s regular matches, but Bao Nhia’s parents came last year to an end-of-season tournament that lasted all day.
“I told them they could go home after we played but they stayed the whole day,” she said. “Their support gives me a spark to work hard.”
Head coach Mark Fischbach went to Cretin High School in St. Paul with Twins star Joe Mauer, so he’s thick with native cred. He’s a father of a 5-year-old and 3-year-old; earned a BA at University of Minnesota Duluth, and an MA in teaching from the University of Minnesota. He’s also a firefighter. He started teaching math at Johnson in 2007, and began assistant-coaching badminton in the spring of 2008.
“I wanted to coach hockey and football, but I was also starting on Roseville’s fire department,” he said. “The JV hockey position opened up but the season is long; too much of a time commitment. At the same time, the assistant badminton job was open. It’s a shorter season, and I’d get to know more kids, so I took it.”
He joined then-head coach Don Bross, who’d been building the program since 2003. Bross had already tapped into the knowledge and enthusiasm of Johnson’s Asian students, and had 50 to 60 girls out every year. While Harding, a neighboring East side St. Paul school, was the badminton powerhouse from 2000 to 2009, Bross’s team won the state title in 2005, 2010, 2011, and 2012 before he left to coach softball at a suburban St. Paul school. With Fischbach installed as head coach, Johnson won the triple crown—team, singles, and doubles—in 2013, and has gone on to win every team title since then, with the exception of 2014. Undefeated for two years prior to the 2014 state tournament, Johnson was upset by St. Paul Central in the semi-finals.
“When I first started [head] coaching, the focus was on playing a lot of matches and using some of Don Bross’s drills,” he said. “I learned some new drills from the internet, but I started coming up with my own based on what I believe makes a successful badminton player—footwork, hand-eye coordination, conditioning. Basic stuff like push-ups and planks, shuffling, back pedaling, M and W sprints, like in football. I also asked players what they would like to work on, and then researched online, and talked to alumni and to my assistant coaches, and came up with drills to work on skills the girls wanted to learn. But I don’t want to give away all our secrets.”
Bao Nhia, sweet but direct, had a different perspective: “I’m pretty sure all the schools do the same drills. There are no secrets.”
When Fischbach’s cousin, Joe Buzicky, who had been coaching middle-school badminton in St. Paul, joined him at Johnson, their player pool expanded. More players meant more talent, more depth, and more friends and sisters to keep the program going.
“I give the girls credit,” Fischbach said. “They take it upon themselves to show up every day, and work hard. I just try to make it a better experience for them, with team dinners and the like. I want them to achieve their potential. In any sport, good athletes have this drive to win. My main contribution is getting these girls to see that they can be competitive, that they can be aggressive. Some kids like Josepheena, she’s naturally a super aggressive player. But Bao Nhia? As a freshman she would just stand there like a robot, not move her feet at all. Now she has the best footwork on the team, and she hits harder than anyone. A lot of the girls have this natural athletic ability but haven’t been pushed to find it.”
Badminton is a fast-paced sport. A dual match—best of three sets, played to 21 points—is over within 30 minutes. Fischbach’s pre-match talk is pretty consistent: Represent Johnson, play every point like it’s match point, and always play to your best ability, because that will help your opponents improve. You win by trying. You learn by losing.
The Johnson Governors went into this year’s 24-team state tournament ranked No. 1 on an undefeated season, defended that spot over two grueling days, and prevailed in the team championship match against No. 2 St. Paul Washington Tech, six to one. Since 2013, the Governors have won 113 total matches and lost two.
The secret to that success? Alumna Genda Lee chalked it up to passion: “We played our hearts out.” Bao Nhia thought it was familial bonds: “We support each other and love each other.” Likely, it’s those factors, as well as consistency and drills and 10,000 hours and at least twenty girls with cat-like reflexes and killer instinct. With the help of a committed, egalitarian coaching staff, Johnson’s girls have learned to be aggressive, strong, and tenacious, and to make sure the next generation acquires those qualities, too.
But let’s not forget joy. Almost every day after practice was officially over, Johnson’s gym was still filled with laughing, diving, smashing athletes.