An immigrant underdog's 'amazing ride'

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His story is the stuff of fantasy, and his life is the fodder for dreams.

Unfortunately, fantasy is make-believe and dreams are something you wake up from at best or nightmares at worst.

Star United States badminton player Kevin Han learned all of this and more here last night at the Olympics when he was thrashed by China's Ji Xinpeng, 15-3, 15-6.

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His magical trip to this magical city ended in stern reality. Han fell behind 6-0 at the start and never recovered. In a game that is finesse, power, deception, and quickness, Ji dominated.

Afterward, Han clearly knew what happened: "He's able to move faster than me."

The trouble with Han's demise is that fans want to believe in miracles. So, too, did Han, although he phrased it differently. He repeatedly told anyone who would listen that it would take a "miracle" for him to medal.

Expectations rose after Han easily disposed of Canada's national champ, Mike Beres, Monday night. The victor likely said more than he meant to afterward: "My goal was to win this match at these Olympic Games." The implication was that winning once would be all the winning he could foresee.

That definitely was reality talking. After all, Han is by far the best US badminton player, but he is 56th-best in the world. Ji is No. 7. Miracles and dreams are fun, but talent is the bedrock of success. Before playing Ji, Han admitted, "I have nothing to lose." That, of course, is the age-old explanation of towering underdogs.

But Han knows about the life of an underdog, and he knows about struggling. He was born in Shanghai, which was a good start for a badminton player. After all, Asians almost totally dominate the sport; at the Atlanta Olympics, they won 14 of the 15 medals.

He loved basketball growing up, but when he was 11, his mother encouraged him to try badminton. Han has explained, "I basically didn't want to disappoint my mom." By the time he was 17, his parents were divorced and he came to the US to live with his father. The streets were not paved with gold.

Home was a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., and work was being a busboy and delivery boy in a New York City Chinese restaurant. Speaking no English made a hard life harder. Survival was the first order of business, meaning badminton definitely was not.

But after a while, he started playing the game a bit in New York clubs and quickly attracted attention. That's what got him invited to train at the US Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Mich. Life was improving, and then came 1994: He became a US citizen and won the national title.

After more training in Chicago, he moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Blistering a shuttlecock at 200 miles per hour took up part of his time.

He also worked, got himself an associate degree from a community college, and then went on to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he earned an undergraduate degree in information technology. Han now works as a software engineer. He married. And, true to his roots, he still loves Asian foods and karaoke.

No wonder Han shakes his head, even in defeat, and calls his 11 years so far in the US, going from an immigrant restaurant worker to a national sports champ, "an amazing ride."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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