By Sandy Brundage
Almanac Staff Writer
What do you think of when someone says "badminton"? Gawky kids smacking each other with the racquets more often than the shuttlecocks?
How about a shuttle flying 200 miles per hour at your head during the last five seconds of an Olympic championship match?
Probably not the latter, but some Menlo Park badminton fans want to change that. When they discovered in June that floor plans for the new $11.5-million Arrillaga gym off Alma Street did not include permanent badminton courts, potentially condemning the sport to obscurity within city limits, they played hard ball.
What followed is a study in persistence. Persistence at the keyboard sending e-mails, at the microphone during council meetings, even at early morning tours of a high school gym.
And in the end, they triumphed.
The city's resistance to the courts focused on three elements, according to Community Services Director Cherise Brandell: 1) Badminton courts sat unused at Onetta Harris Community Center and the Burgess gym; 2) Surveys demonstrated little interest in badminton; and 3) Badminton lines, painted on the gym floor, would hopelessly confuse the floor layout.
Retired high school badminton coach John Hargis, backed up by internationally ranked player Seth Elliot, set out to knock down the objections one by one.
The most frustrating part, Mr. Hargis said, was the city's initial lack of response. "It wasn't a matter of writing my letter and someone saying, 'Come by my office, and we'll talk about it," he reflected. "It was more a matter of silence. It felt like breaking through a wall to get their attention."
The 65-year-old Menlo Park man persisted for one reason. "I've been playing badminton since I was 10 years old. It's one of the few things in life I can point to and say, 'This is good.'"
He scouted the three courts at Onetta Harris and discovered that fixed basketball hoops limited play on two courts, and the city had bought only one badminton net.
"The plan was to purchase more as use increased," Ms. Brandell said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Elliot attended council meeting after council meeting to urge officials to add badminton lines to the Arrillaga gym. According to the world-class athlete, the courts at Burgess, available only on Sunday nights, couldn't accommodate everyone who wanted to play.
Obstacle No. 1 -- that the city already had sufficient court capacity -- no longer looked insurmountable.
City staff had estimated that only an average of five people played weekly at the Burgess gym, according to the community services director.
"They were basically saying no one plays badminton anyway," Mr. Elliot said after a series of meetings with city planners and recreational staff. This came as a surprise, since he coaches players at Menlo-Atherton High School, Stanford University, and private clubs. "The arguments they were using, to me, didn't make any sense. I started to get worried. Really worried."
So the badminton advocates set out to prove the city wrong. After a month of campaigning via letters and public comments, Mr. Hargis showed Councilman Andy Cohen a petition signed by 167 people. Mr. Cohen and colleague Kelly Fergusson decided to support the proposal.
The petition carried 240 names by the time it reached the mayor. Obstacle No. 2 -- insufficient interest -- destroyed.
On Sept. 13, to resolve the question of confusing lines, Ms. Brandell organized a tour of the badminton courts inside one gym at Menlo-Atherton High School, accompanied by the two council members and the sport's advocates at 7:30 a.m.
Turns out the lines did not, in fact, confuse anyone; the finding perhaps bolstered by learning that the company that created the high school's courts, H.Y. Floor & Gameline Painting, was the same company contracted to work on Arrillaga.
Obstacle No. 3 vanished. In retrospect, no one, including the city, knows how city staff concluded the lines would be confusing.
"That's the mystery question. I don't know if anyone's ever going to admit making that statement," Mr. Elliot said.
Word came down that afternoon from the man himself, City Manager Glen Rojas. After reviewing everyone's input, he approved adding six courts at the Arrillaga gym. The cost of painting the lines is "minimal, and can be accommodated in the project budget," Ms. Brandell said. Community Services will also buy nets.
Mr. Hargis estimated the cost as $2,400 to paint six courts, and about $2,500 for nets. "They probably spent more than that of Cherise's time trying to tell us no."
Elephant in room
Why add the badminton courts to Arrillaga instead of improving the courts already at Belle Haven's Onetta Harris Community Center? If the city placed six courts there, would that have satisfied the badminton community?
Depends on whom you ask.
"No way," said Councilman Andy Cohen, and listed several reasons why. High school students without driver's licenses would have a hard time getting to the center, he said, and parents don't want their kids riding bicycles across a U.S. 101 overpass.
There may be a little more to it than that.
"Not to mention the unspoken, the taboo reason, which is that nobody wants to go to Belle Haven," Mr. Cohen said. "If they're in West Menlo, the last place they want to go is all the way over there. It doesn't have a good reputation. No one wants trouble."
Ms. Brandell said, "They do not want to go to Onetta Harris. I am still unsure of the reasons."
In an e-mail to her, Mr. Hargis described Ms. Brandell's attempts to sell him on the center as trying "to make the Belle Haven court(s) appear to be a 'silk purse' offering to the badminton community, but in reality, it is a one-court 'sow's ear'" compared to the potential of Arrillaga.
But as far as playing at Onetta goes, he told The Almanac, "We probably would've been willing to go there, but there's a lot of attraction to the state-of-art, centrally located facility being offered." Mr. Elliot concurred, citing the lack of available hours, reduced staffing, and safety concerns about the basketball posts at the Belle Haven facility.
Game, set, match
The badminton fans emphasized their gratitude for the city's flexibility. Mr. Elliot's excitement bubbled through his voice as he spoke about what this will mean for the kids he coaches.
For his part, Mr. Hargis sounded both appreciative, and also relieved to be able to take a break now from political rabble-rousing.
"I'm proud to be a Menlo Park resident. Those who were deciding and thought we were a nuisance and we should just go away, really didn't see what badminton is," he said. "If people are counting on you to give them a voice, you can't let the frustrations stop you from trying until you break through."