Thursday January 20th, 2005

On this year's U.S. Olympic team, you'll find a broad mix of cultures, ambitions and life stories that symbolize the American melting pot. Kevin Han, the greatest badminton player in U.S. history, is one example of this. He traveled by bike, sweated in kitchens, often got lost and didn't understand what evolved in front of him. The experience toughened his resolve, which has carried him to seven national titles. This summer, he'll compete in his third Olympics and first as a doubles player, with partner Howard Bach.

In Nov. 1989, when he was 17, Han left his native China for New York. Eight years earlier, Kevin's father, Liang Nian, had traveled to the States after splitting with Kevin's mother, Xu Yiling, who remained in Shanghai. Kevin, the No. 6 ranked badminton player in China at the time, and a high school grad with excellent grades, wanted to re-unite with his father and make a new life for himself in the mysterious land of opportunity he had read about.

"My father was nothing more than a memory for me at that point," Han said. "I didn't want to go through life like that."

Han also wanted to pursue his sporting career and his Olympic aspirations, though he had no idea what badminton opportunities existed in the U.S.

He was in for a rude awakening. Not until he arrived did he realize his father was without a job, lived in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood and didn't have the means to help Kevin continue his education or practice badminton.

Kevin took a job at a Chinese restaurant in New York called Taipei and began busing tables.

"My first English words," he said, "were: 'Do you want more water?' and 'Are you finished?'" For six months, Han made $700 a month, including tips and pitched in to help his father.

Last week, Han and I went looking for Taipei and searching for his past. As we headed east, towards Third Avenue, he began to recognize buildings he hadn't seen in 10 years. "I delivered there, there and there," he said. "That building, I'll never forget, because I tried to understand someone's directions and ended up walking into the women's bathroom."

I could see the anticipation in Han's step as we turned the last corner he hadn't walked in a decade. "This is it," he said. "If it's still there . . ." It wasn't. The storefront had been converted into an Off-Track Betting establishment that had since closed, itself. Now the building was vacant, awaiting new tenants.

"It doesn't look like anyone's been there in a long time," Han said. "Boy, this place ... we had three party rooms. You went up this narrow staircase, right through there. At night the upstairs was packed, just packed. I was just lucky I found something like that to keep me going. There was so much going on, you just didn't want to mess up. It's funny to look in after looking out and not knowing the future every day."

As we settled into another Chinese restaurant, near Kevin's original place of works, he told me that the future had begun to wear on him, after self-doubt crept in and he was still without a place to play badminton.

"It was the worst time of my life," he said. "I thought: This is not the way I want to live my life. Over here I'm nobody. I have no friends, I hate my job. I'm not learning, I'm not using my skills from badminton or from school. What kind of life is it here? But if I went back, I'd just be a coward. I had to keep trying."

Han switched briefly to a job in another restaurant that was located in Lower Manhattan, amidst low-income housing and gangland turfwars. Then he took on a construction job. After a full year, Han happened upon a friend from Shanghai who had also moved to Queens. The friend helped him find a badminton club in the borough, and soon Han was re-energized.

"I was like a new man once I started playing again," he said. "I was still so uncomfortable with the language and the lifestyle. But when I played I was comfortable. I was happy."

He was also successful. Han started winning local tournaments and soon had some USA badminton officials offering to help him. He took English as a second language and within a year, he moved to Michigan, where he studied computers at the Marquette University and started ascending the national rankings. Not surprisingly, his favorite television show was Growing Pains.

Han earned his citizenship in 1994, the same year he won his first U.S. title and was named USA Badminton's Athlete of the Year. Two years later, when he qualified for his first Olympic team, he met Cindy Shi, also a badminton player and Chinese immigrant. They lived for a few years in Colorado Springs, Col., where Kevin trained and earned a degree from UCCS in Information Systems in December 1999. The next year, he reached the round of 16 at the Sydney Olympics, a significant achievement for U.S. badminton players.

These days, he and Cindi are now married, living in Orange, Calif., near the Olympic Training Center, and have two children, Ethan, 20 months, and Emily, three months. They speak Mandarin at home, so their children will have an appreciation for both cultures. As an elite level U.S. athlete in a little known sport, Kevin earns roughly $10,000-$15,000 a year from badminton, but holds down a regular job at a Home Depot in Orange, Calif. He works in the support center, handling customer inquiries about computers. The store gives him liberal time off to train and attend competitions.

He said he couldn't be sure if this would be his last Olympics, though he knows he is slowing down. It is a sport for quick wrists that propel shuttlecocks at 200 miles an hour and quick feet to chase them down. Ahead of him, Han has a life as a father and computer engineer, but he also wants to squeeze every last serve and volley he can from his body.

"It is such a privilege to play this game," he said, as we opened our fortune cookies at the end of our meal. "I wouldn't change what I've been through."

Han smiled as he opened his fortune cookie and the words of wisdom. They read: "A golden egg of opportunity falls into your lap."

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