Chloe Magee hoping to make it a family affair at her fourth Olympics
Ireland’s badminton star joins brother Sam in bid to qualify for the mixed doubles in Tokyo
Chloe Magee: “Playing well and performing to our best there is no reason we can’t make it. But we have to get a lot of big performances out over the next 12 months.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Sonia O’Sullivan has run four. Rob Heffernan has walked in five. Chloe Magee has snapped the shuttlecock in three but believes one more Olympic Games makes more sense of a career that began as a teenager with just a forward gear.
But this time in a run at the fourth, it will be different. There will be no distraction of also trying to qualify for the singles event. There will be no solo run to Tokyo for Ireland’s world ranked badminton player.
Over the next 12 months the qualification effort will be strictly family with her brother Sam, a bronze medal winner with her in the mixed doubles and with brother Joshua in the men’s doubles at the 2015 European Championships. Now 30-years-old, singles at the Olympic Games is a road already travelled for Chloe. It’s time to move on. Her body is telling her the mileage to go it alone is a stressor. And she doesn’t intend to fight it.
“That last time I tried to qualify for Rio you know me and Sam started out with the mixed. But qualifying for the two events was impossible,” she says.
“Two big events in an Olympics. It’s impossible. There’s very, very few people that will do it. It was more I was focussed on singles and maybe the mixed would work out. This time all eggs in one basket. It’s mixed and we want to be there for that.”
If they can gather the points to qualify it will be the first time an Irish mixed badminton team will have competed in an Olympic Games. But Magee is used to breaking new ground.
She competed for Ireland at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China at the age of 19 and became the first ever Irish woman to win a badminton match at the Games. beating Estonian Kati Tolmoff 18–21, 21–18, 21–19 in the first round of the singles.
Ranked 44th in the world she also qualified for London in 2012, where RTÉ anchor Bill O’Herlihy made an unusual misstep by declaring that badminton “was a mainly Protestant sport”. The Donegal woman, sensitive to her personal history of having learned her badminton in a Presbyterian Hall in Raphoe, gently countered on Donegal’s Highland Radio about Olympic inclusivity.
But as a 17-year-old, who left the county for Sweden after her Leaving Cert to boldly pursue a career in the sport, she is nothing if not combative and tenacious. There is not much Magee hasn’t seen or encountered over more than a decade.
As ever Olympic Games considerations take on oversized dimensions even when the drone of the five ringed engine travelling towards Tokyo is barely audible more than a year out. However, the process begins for the Donegal pair next week at the European Games in Minsk Belarus, where last week Chloe was chosen as Ireland’s flag bearer in the opening ceremony.
One of the incentives of the games, still embryonic and struggling to harden its continental currency, is that outside of making the podium there are Olympic qualification points on offer in some sports. The badminton qualifying process runs from May this year to May 2020, where points from the 10 best tournaments are counted. This is one.
“Every tournament has different points so you are collecting points all the time,” she says. “The European Games is one. They have Olympic points so it’s a big one for us. It then depends on how everybody else does.”
“In singles it’s 38 places and maybe a few more. With mixed it’s only 16 places. It’s quite tough but we’ve got as good a shot as a few other ones and it’s going to be just in or just out. Playing well and performing to our best there is no reason we can’t make it. But we have to get a lot of big performances out over the next 12 months.
“The last three Olympics I’ve gone for singles,” she adds. “I just didn’t think my singles was going up to another level. With mixed, we are competing with the best pairs in the world. That’s where I want to be with my badminton. I want to be competing with these pairs that are the top 15 in the world. I don’t just want to be 35 and 40 all my life.”
There's no one closer than your family. We definitely get the best out of each other
With brothers Paul and Gary O’Donovan in rowing, rugby’s Rob and Dave Kearney or Britain’s married badminton pair Gabby and Chris Adcock, the relationship is important. It not something any of them overly contemplate but it’s an enduring point of curiosity for outsiders. The familial interaction between them counts for something.
As well as that the ways of the Magees growing up has always been a clan affair with brother Dan also coaching and the others among the seven children players too. She grew up as one of the younger kids being roundly beaten by older brothers in the parish hall and sees that as the beginning of the hot fire, tempering of her character into the robust piece of kit it has become.
“There’s positives and negatives to every partnership,” she says. “When you are playing with someone in your family you can say a lot more to them than you can with somebody else. All in all you are both there for each other, you support each other.
“There’s no one closer than your family. We definitely get the best out of each other. We know how each other ticks. That’s important especially if you are going to go through a really tough Olympic year. You’ve got to know how people work. That’s one of the upsides.
“The last three years has been brilliant with Sam. We’ve been competing with some really big players in the big tournaments in the big arenas. That’s where I want to be with my sport and it’s always given me the buzz. With mixed we are definitely up there with that top level. Maybe haven’t broke through yet.
“We’re in the 30s now but we’ve been as a high as 20 in the rankings. We need to get up a bit but again it depends on what other pairs do. We’ve a lot of tournaments coming up.”
Far from any process of drawing the blinds, she understands it is more the ebb years of her career than the flow. There are no plans other than Tokyo qualification. But to generate a hotspot for high performance badminton among the Gaelic footballers and soccer players of the northeast captures her imagination as a return to where it began. Bringing it back to Donegal, why not.
“It’s something in the future that I would like to bring back what I got, bring back high performance sport to Donegal because I know the talent is there,” she says. “The set up and the system isn’t.
“It is hard and it’s tough when you come from a small place like Raphoe. In Ireland you have to be based in one of the bigger cities like Dublin or even Belfast. But I was lucky I had my brothers growing up. They pushed me on.
“But it is something I would love to do, bring high performance badminton to the northwest, to give them an opportunity where they don’t have to travel three hours in a car all the time to get this world-class coaching.”
Far from Olympic fatigue kicking in, carving a patch to Tokyo with younger brother Sam fires her enthusiasm.
“Nobody else in Ireland has done it before,” she says. “It would be the most incredible thing.”
Four indeed. Sweet.