Von Heiland Beats Odds and Rankings to Qualify for Olympics : Badminton: Ranked 92nd in world in women's singles, she finishes 18-month qualifying tour among top 40 headed to Barcelona.


For Erika von Heiland, the Road to Barcelona--where she dreamed of competing for the United States in Olympic badminton--not only was marred with potholes, it was beginning to look like a dead-end street.

Von Heiland, ranked No. 92 in the world in women's singles, won the silver medal in the 1991 Pan American games and has represented the United States in the 1989 and '91 World Championships.

However, her dreams of performing next month in Barcelona, where badminton will debut as a medal sport, were ready to come to an end.

"I was 99.9% sure I didn't make it," said von Heiland during a recent break in Balboa Park, where members of the U.S. Olympic badminton and women's volleyball teams are training. "I was already planning my education and my comeback in 1996."

But on May 1, she received an official invitation to compete in Barcelona.

"My hair stood on end. I couldn't believe it," said von Heiland, 26, a former Orange County resident whose father, Ted von Heiland, resides in Anaheim. "I made it as the highest ranked women's singles player from the U.S. It was so ironic . . . really bizarre."

In January, 1991, von Heiland was one of six U.S. players picked to begin the long qualifying process for one of 40 Olympic singles berths. She began an 18-month, 23-country tour with no guarantee she would make the final player pool.

Her fortunes plummeted when the U.S. Badminton Assn. decided to concentrate on qualifying its women's doubles team for one of 56 Olympic slots.

"In January ('92), the USBA decided to cut my funding and focus its finances on athletes in the women's doubles (who they thought had) better chances of qualifying," von Heiland said. "I was very disappointed, but I understood."

Perseverance and persistence are big words in von Heiland's vocabulary.

"I didn't quit," she said. "I never went into anything half-baked. I had gone this far and I wanted to go to the end. I only had six months more to go (on tour), so I decided to go for it. I took out a loan and got some help from Olympic grants to finance my travel and training expenses."

Von Heiland hung in through the final tournament in Vienna. Because of the complicated computerized ratings system ("Every two months, the computer rankings would come out. I went through emotional highs and lows"), she wasn't sure where she stood. Wherever it was, she didn't think it was good enough.

"I came home from the tournament and didn't think I had made it," von Heiland said. "I did my grieving and planned my next move. I signed up at Northern Michigan University for summer school."

But her initial disappointment turned to jubilation.

"It's the ultimate for any athlete to qualify for the Olympics," von Heiland said. "All three men and three women made it. The U.S. will be 100% represented."

In addition to Von Heiland, Joy Kitzmiller of Manhattan Beach and Linda French of San Diego qualified for the women, and Chris Jogis of Manhattan Beach, Benny Lee of San Jose and Tom Reidy of Mesa, Ariz., for the men.

Vicki Toutz, badminton coach at Garden Grove High School, was named coach of the U.S. team in May. As chairman of the international competition committee of the USBA, Toutz was the one to get von Heiland started on her Olympic journey.

"Badminton is in its infancy in the U.S.," von Heiland said. "In order to make it here, you have to work five times as hard."

Von Heiland was born of a German-Philippine father and an Irish-American mother in Angeles City near Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where both parents worked. She grew up in Manila and played competitive tennis in the Junior Nationals until age 16, when she took up badminton.

"It was actually by accident,," von Heiland said. "I had some friends on the national team. Two weeks after I picked up the sport, I went to a training camp for two months in Indonesia.

"There was a big difference between tennis and badminton. The hand-eye coordination is the same, but badminton is in the wrist and tennis is in the arm."

In 1985, von Heiland moved to Buena Park, where her father was then residing. She had seriously injured her left knee playing on the Philippine national team, and then hurt her other knee just before she was to have surgery for her first injury.

"The doctors told me my chances of competing again were very slim," she said. "I was told my playing days were over. I needed to do something with a goal at the end, so I started to body build."

A trip back to the Philippines in 1988, however, rekindled her badminton career.

"Of course, my old teammates and friends got me to pick up a racket and play," von Heiland said. "Much to my surprise, I was pain free. When I returned, I started playing again. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to play in the Olympics. Now that I'm in the States . . . I decided to give it a try for the U.S."

In 1989, von Heiland made the U.S. National team and shortly thereafter received a scholarship to play at Arizona State.

"I was ecstatic," she said. "I could kill two birds with one stone--get an education, travel the country, work on my game and my career ambitions (criminal justice major)."

"Vicki Toutz gave me my chance, and I was very, very delighted," von Heiland said. "I gave up my scholarship and my last year of intercollegiate competition. I made the tough decision to put my career ambitions on hold to pursue my Olympic dream."

Von Heiland will train in San Diego until July 18, when she will leave for Tampa, Fla., for team processing and then on to Barcelona.

"Indonesia, China and Korea and maybe a European in doubles will be the top contenders," she said. "I'm not a medal contender, but I hope to win a few rounds."

Von Heiland's journey to Barcelona is all but complete. Just don't ask her for directions.

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