Watson Lake’s golden racket

Vanessa Carlson and Abbie Rotondi were the only badminton players to spoil Greenland’s monopoly on gold ulus during the Arctic Games.

Vanessa Carlson and Abbie Rotondi were the only badminton players to spoil Greenland’s monopoly on gold ulus during the Arctic Games.

Carlson whapped her way to a gold in the juvenile female singles, going undefeated in her round-robin pool and beating Greenland players in both the semis and the final. She won a second gold in the juvenile female doubles, with Rotondi as her partner.

A strong doubles player, Rotondi also won silver in the mixed doubles with Jason Carlson.

Jason Carlson also took silver in the juvenile male singles.

All three players hail from Watson Lake, where a small but dedicated group of juniors have taken to the sport — with impressive results.

Led by coaches Randy Carlson and Criss Rotondi, the Watson Lakers started working toward their goal of Arctic Games success three years ago, about eight months before the Kenai Games in 2006.

“We didn’t do very well in Alaska, but we saw that there was potential there,” said Randy. “I recognized that we needed to improve our training, including me.”

Randy upgraded his coaching to level II at a training camp in Prince George, and learned how to bring his players’ games to the next level as well.

So for the next two years, the group spent the winter months (two or three nights a week) smashing shuttles, working on footwork, and preparing for the Yellowknife Games.

They got a pre-Games boost at a junior A tournament in Kelowna in February, where Abbie won the U-16 girls, and Jason Carlson and Jerome Belanger won the U-16 boys doubles, among other podium finishes.

“That gave us a real idea of where we stood, going into the Games,” said Randy.

The powerhouse Greenland contingent dominated the event, which is not surprising, said Jean Francois Roldan, president of the Yukon Badminton Association, and an official at the Games.

They had a professional coach from Denmark leading the team — “Denmark is consistently in the top three in the world in badminton, they can beat the Asian countries at the senior level — so any success against that is a major success,” said Roldan.

Six of the eight players on Yukon’s badminton team were Watson Lakers, which begs the question — how could Watson Lake, with a fraction of Whitehorse’s population, field such a strong contingent of badminton players?

“In a small place like this, it’s much harder to get team sports going,” said Randy. “You’d never get a basketball or volleyball team here — but you can train in badminton with two or three people … at a very high level.”

There’s a family tradition of badminton success at the Arctics — Randy won gold for Yukon at the 1978 Games, and 30 years later his daughter repeated the feat.

The Carlsons and the Rotondis are likely to continue to produce strong results for the Yukon — Vanessa Carlson is just 13, and will still be eligible for the juvenile division (U-16) at the next Arctics in Grande Prairie in 2010.

Jason Carlson and Abbie Rotondi will move into the junior division (U-19) by then, but overall, the team is young.

Michaela Rotondi, at 12 the youngest player on the team, competed in the junior division facing players up to seven years her senior.

“It was very challenging for her, and very intimidating, and it was with trepidation that we put her in,” said Randy, who added that the experience was key to her development. “She ended up winning five matches overall, two in the singles.”

While badminton thrives in rural Yukon, it struggles in Whitehorse. Roldan said that skilled athletic kids in the capital have a wide range of sports to choose from, and it’s hard for the sport to compete with more high-profile activities like soccer or volleyball.

“Hopefully the success at the Games will generate some more interest from young athletes,” said Roldan.

His ideal scenario would have a competitive high school series that isn’t limited to March, when phys. ed classes teach the sport. “If we could go for the entire school year, that would be great.”

As it stands, the limited badminton season will finish with the Yukon Championships at Porter Creek Secondary School on April 25-27.

Vanessa Carlson has a chance to continue her competitive season, Roldan would like to see her compete at the U-14 nationals in Winnipeg in May.

He added that her gold wins lend credibility to the Yukon Badminton Associations’ need for more funding, to allow elite athletes to travel to competitions Outside.

With two years until the next Arctic Games, badminton players are focused on junior A or junior B tournaments in Alberta and BC, and Roldan said that some players are eligible for the North American Indigenous Games in Cowichan, BC, and the Canadian Francophone Games in Edmonton. Both events come up in August.