Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Badminton champs riding a rise in interest

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MOST weekends, Haley Nakonechny wraps up her school work, packs up her racket and makes a two-hour drive into Winnipeg to burnish her badminton game.

It's been a time-consuming commitment, but now the 16-year-old from Manitou, Man., has the title to prove it was all worth it. On Sunday, Nakonechny clinched a victory in the women's singles A division of the provincial badminton championships, beating Clarissa Koh in the final round to become the new Manitoba champion. "It feels like my work has been paying off," the Grade 11 student said. "I just wanted to play the best I could and see where it got me."

Though she's young, in some ways the win comes as little surprise to those who know her. The youngest of three athletic sisters, Nakonechny discovered badminton at summer camp when she was 11 years old and fell in love with the sport. At first, she played with older sister Rae, 19. "She was always better," Rae laughed after watching her sister swing to victory at the Winnipeg Winter Club. "She's pretty much good at everything."

Still, how's this for a sister act: When Nakonechny comes to Winnipeg for the weekends to play badminton, she stays with Rae and sister Kaitlin, 21, who share an apartment in the city and serve as a regular cheering section. "We get more nervous watching than she does playing," Kaitlin said. "It's neat to watch her do something that she really, really loves, and watch her excel at it, too."

Nakonechny will look to continue her winning ways later this month when she heads to the national under-23 and junior championship in Saskatoon. It's her second trip to nationals -- she sat out one year with a shoulder injury -- and she said she plans to focus more on playing well rather than achieving a specific result.

While shuttlecocks tend to fly under the radar in North America, badminton draws big interest in some European and Asian nations. Winnipeg's Andrew Harrison, 21, hasn't been quite that far yet, but the University of Winnipeg student, who won the men's A division Sunday to defend his 2012 provincial championship, has criss-crossed Canada, and even made it to Mexico and Peru to compete.

"(Interest) seems to be building locally. Everybody says, 'You know, I played that in high school and I wish I could have played more.' It's fun," said Harrison, who went around to 30 schools last summer with Sport Manitoba to help kids get pumped up about the sport.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2013 C4

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