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Tony Gunawan clears first hurdle to reaching London Olympics

Badminton has taken Olympic champion Tony Gunawan to courts all over the world. But he never expected it would land him in federal court, which is where he found himself Tuesday morning, ordered to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carla M. Woehrle on the sixth floor of the Roybal Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles.

“I’m very nervous,” Gunawan confessed, anxiously wringing his hands and smiling wanly.

His sport has brought him money and acclaim far beyond what he could have imagined growing up in East Java, Indonesia. But the award he was about to receive from Woehrle was U.S. citizenship.

“Raise your right hand,” the judge instructed. And Gunawan, his rail-thin 5-foot-9 frame draped in a crisply pressed blue shirt and pleated black pants, snaps to attention. When he finishes reciting the 141-word oath of allegiance — pledging to support and defend a country he barely knew a decade ago — he smiles again as the five witnesses in the otherwise empty courtroom applaud.

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Six months ago citizenship was simply a means to an end for Gunawan, something he needed to compete in October’s Pan American Games and next summer’s London Olympics.

But moments after leaving the courthouse, Gunawan takes a seat on a concrete bench and offers another confession.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” he says, his emotions getting ahead of his English. “Very lucky me that I got this opportunity to stay and work in the U.S. and then raise up my family here.

“So it’s very fortunate. I never dreamed, actually, about this before when I was in Indonesia. It’s quite a big moment for me.”

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And there may be other big moments ahead. With the citizenship issue resolved, Gunawan and partner Howard Bach are now clear to compete in next month’s Pan American Games, where they will defend the doubles title Bach won with another partner four years ago. Then come next summer’s London Games and a chance at badminton’s biggest prize, an Olympic gold medal.

Yet all that is secondary for Gunawan, who already has an Olympic title and two world championships. His goal now, he says, is to raise the profile of badminton in his new home, where it is seen largely as a backyard barbecue activity.

An Olympic medal sport since 1992, world-class badminton can be frenetic, especially in doubles where four players, squeezed onto a 44-by-20-foot indoor court, using lightweight carbon-fiber rackets smash a cork and goose-feather shuttlecock at one another over a 5-foot-high net at speeds exceeding 230 mph.

At its best, badminton can be far more challenging to watch than either tennis or table tennis — two other Olympic sports — because the shuttlecock, or “birdie,” moves so fast it can be difficult to track. Yet it’s a serious sport throughout Asia, where tickets to major events are scalped for huge amounts and top players are treated with the same awe and reverence as Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning.

Gunawan is not alone in his desire to raise the sport’s profile here. Among his most powerful allies is Don Chew, a former president of USA Badminton and still the sport’s most influential person in this country.

“My goal,” Chew says flatly, “is to help the U.S. win the gold.”

By his own estimate, the 70-year-old Chew has spent more than $6.5 million of his own money on U.S. badminton over the last 15 years, nearly half of that on the 78,000-square-foot building in Orange that houses the Orange County Badminton Club.

It is the premier badminton facility in the country and one of the best in the world. Its 12 courts have floors made of Danish beechwood, which rest atop a 2-inch cushion intended to save the knees of its athletes. The building is temperature-controlled by a special air conditioning system Chew designed, one that cools the air without creating breezes strong enough to disrupt the shuttlecocks.

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“He’s very passionate about the sport,” says one person inside the U.S. Olympic Committee, who asked not to be identified because of the strained relationship between Chew and the USOC. Chew has long bickered with the group over funding and other issues.

Chew’s devotion to the sport was hard-earned since the Thai immigrant credits badminton with saving his life.

As a boy he fell in with the wrong crowd and, by his own admission was “a bad kid, no discipline.” But after stumbling into badminton he gave up drinking and smoking. The sport, he says, taught him a lot about hard work and setting goals.

And after immigrating to Los Angeles as a young man, those traits fueled Chew’s rise from minimum-wage warehouse worker to millionaire owner of one of Southern California’s most renowned printing companies.

“I love this sport. It changed my life,” Chew says, standing in the middle of his badminton club. “And I want to pay back the sport.”

But that wasn’t going to happen for love or money. What Chew really needed was better players and coaches, which is where Gunawan came in.

Gunawan is widely regarded as one of the greatest doubles players in badminton history. But after winning Olympic and world championship titles for Indonesia before his 27th birthday, he needed a new challenge. And what could be more challenging than building up badminton in the West?

“He had offers,” Bach says. “From England. Australia. You name it.”

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Chew sealed the deal for the U.S. by offering Gunawan a position at OCBC and agreeing to sponsor his U.S. immigration application, guiding him through a process that can be more difficult for someone from Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population.

Now, however, Chew feels betrayed. In the last year, Gunawan has begun coaching at a new badminton club closer to his West Covina home, a gym where he and Bach, who previously trained at OCBC, work out six mornings a week.

“He doesn’t help me because he left me now. How’s he going to help?” Chew asks. “I’m disappointed. All my investments go to the toilet.

“All these people I spent money [on], they all left. They’re all my competitors. Tony’s going to be my big competitor. That’s my life.”

Gunawan seems surprised by Chew’s words. He continues to work with Chew’s 17-year-old grandson Phillip, a budding world-class player, and says he believes he is still on good terms with Chew and his family.

“I cannot repay what he’s done for me,” Gunawan says. “I really appreciate it.”

Despite their differences, however, it’s clear the two men need each other to achieve their goal of making the U.S. a force in international badminton. Gunawan brings world-class talent and expertise while Chew provides the passion, funding and administrative know-how.

“It is, right now, getting better,” says Gunawan, whose wife Eti was also an Indonesian Olympian and whose parents both played the game on a lower level in Indonesia. “It’s not popular, but there must be a way to make it bigger because we’re at the bottom. We can only move up.”

But while an Olympic gold medal would give badminton instant credibility in this country, neither Gunawan nor Bach, his partner, say they will go to London if they don’t have a chance to win one.

“I’ve been there twice and I didn’t medal. So why go a third time if I don’t have a shot?” says Bach who, like Gunawan, defines “a shot” as a top-10 world ranking, a level they haven’t achieved in more than a year.

Gunawan, however, may be rethinking that pledge. Sitting on the stone bench outside the courthouse, shading his eyes against a brilliant late-morning sun, the newly minted U.S. citizen talks about pulling an all-nighter to study for his citizenship test, then proudly brags he didn’t miss a question.

The certificate and tiny American flag he received at his swearing in are neatly guarded in the black satchel on his lap. A form letter from President Obama — who also played badminton in Indonesia as a youngster — rests on his computer hard drive.

“I’m very excited,” he says. “I moved here and basically my life is here. I have a house, a new club, my family. To be part of this … it’s a pretty big thing, I’d say.”

In fact, Gunawan concedes, there’s really only one thing that could make it bigger.

“Being in the Olympics again,” he says, “representing my country.”

And this time he’s not talking about Indonesia.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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