FULLY FOCUSED ON LONDON GOAL
(The Irish Times)


Mary Hannigan talks to a 21-year-old professional who has always displayed a fierce determination to make the most of his sporting talent. He now has his heart set on winning a medal at the next Olympic Games.

SCOTT EVANS didn't, he admits, travel with "high hopes" to India earlier this month for the World Badminton Championships, his confidence low after a dip in form.

But a straight sets victory over a Russian opponent, followed by a heartening display in which he took a set off the the 10th seed from Hong Kong, left him feeling he was "back on the right track".

A happy journey home, then?

"Not quite," the Dubliner laughs, "it was a bit of a nightmare."

There he was, lying on the floor at the back of his Frankfurt-bound plane with an oxygen mask attached to his face, the aroma from the food area beside him not aiding his recovery.

"Then the head air hostess said if I didn't improve they'd have to make an emergency landing . . . in Iran. So I suddenly got very much better. I was like, 'no problem, I'm fine'."

Twice the 21-year-old had passed out in the early stages of the nine-hour flight, having been ill for the previous two days.

"I'd had a hot stone massage at the hotel, he told me it would get all the bad fluids out of my system, but whatever happened I felt horrendous, I spent all of the next day on the toilet. We were going home that night and I was terrified I wouldn't make the plane. So, yeah, the trip home was just not a good thing. But I made it. Without an emergency landing," he laughs.

He spent the weekend recovering in his Copenhagen home, but was back training on the Monday.

"It probably wasn't a good idea, but, apart from the illness, it was a good week, I'd got my confidence back, so I just wanted to get going again."

That level of restlessness was noted by his teachers in Wesley College. As soon as he learnt to drive he was leaving his Dundrum home at five in the morning to travel over to the badminton centre at Whitehall Road to train with his team-mate Donie O'Halloran.

"I'd get home around 7.45, have a shower, and then go in to school. And I'd be sleeping for the first three classes."

"My parents knew I never really enjoyed school, I just wanted to play sport – first it was football, then badminton. I just didn't like to sit in a room for the whole day doing things I wasn't enjoying. I wanted to be outside running around.

"I started to do quite well in some tournaments when I was 14, 15, and all the time I tried to picture what the best players in Europe were doing. I assumed they were training at least twice a day, so I wanted to do more because I wanted to be better than them."

With that level of determination he persuaded his parents that school wasn't for him – and once he left, in fifth year, he would have to move away.

"It just wasn't possible for me to do what I wanted to do in Ireland. I could do all the running, all the strength training, all the footwork I wanted, but I still needed to train and practice with better players."

His talent had earned him an invitation, when he was 14, to the International Badminton Academy in Denmark, where he spent a month with his older brother Lee, and that experience convinced him that Denmark, one of the leading badminton nations, was where he needed to be.

After leaving school in fifth year, he moved back to the Academy in Copenhagen, later teaming up with coach Jim Laugesen, the former world number one who he had met previously at the Italian Open.

Evans joined Laugesen's Danish Premier League club Gentofte in 2006 and remains contracted there as a full-time professional. The rewards are modest, but are augmented by funding from the Irish Olympic Council and the Irish Sports Council.

"It was difficult at first, leaving my family and friends behind, but I was looking forward to it. I knew I had to do it to fulfil my dreams, so it was something I just dealt with. I had to create a life over here and at the beginning it was hard, but I've built that life now."

The most difficult transition for Evans was on the court, having being used to winning back home – he was the Irish number one at just 16 – he was suddenly coming up against players who were at least his equal.

"In Ireland I could just smash everything down and I wouldn't have a problem, then I go over to Denmark and it turns out that my smash is not as good as I thought it was. In some ways playing in Ireland helped because I got that winning feeling, but the quality just wasn't as good.

"So I threw myself in to it, I had a lot to catch up on, so many different training exercises, techniques, footwork, everything. Looking back I wish I knew then all the stuff that I know now because I would definitely be a lot better player. But that's also what has driven me, that's why I'm putting in so much work, to catch up on what I missed when I was younger."

Once he began to 'catch up' his progress was impressive, breaking in to the world's top 50 and, last year, becoming the first Irish player to reach the quarter-finals of the European Championships, where he lost to the man who went on to win the title, Denmark's Kenneth Jonassen.

At just 20 he qualified for the Olympic Games too, losing an epic first round tie to German Marc Zwiebler (21-18, 18-21, 21-19).

"When I won the second set I turned around and I could see my brother, my Mum and my Dad at the back of the stand, they were just going crazy. I just remember looking up at the three of them and that feeling was incredible, I won't forget that. I can't even put words on how it felt."

London 2012, though, is the real target.

"Everything I'm doing now is working towards that goal. I have weekly goals, monthly goals, tournament goals, but long term I hope to be getting a medal in London."

After easing down on his international schedule since Beijing, Evans' ranking has fallen to 63, but, with a busy schedule ahead, he is confident of getting back to where he was. Between now and Christmas he will play in up to seven tournaments, in Europe and Asia, as well as several club matches with Gentofte. And he's in a hurry to achieve his goals.

"I am impatient. I'm only 21 but I am sick of hearing 'it will come, keep working hard'. Jim said it to me after the Worlds. He's like, "I know you hate when I say this, but....", so I said: "Don't even think about it".

He said "I have to say it," and I said "if you do I'll give you a punch".

So we made a deal – he got to say it and I got to smack him. So, yeah, I hate to hear it – but I need to hear it, I know that. It will come if I keep working hard."

"And I know I have a lot of potential. I would do anything to get every single bit of it out of myself. If it meant training 10 hours every day I'd do it. I'm only going to live once, I've got an opportunity that I've been lucky enough to get, so I'm going to take it."