ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Go to a high school badminton match in Minnesota, and you’ll notice a fast pace, a high level of skill, and intense competition.
“I think it’s just really entertaining,” said St. Paul Johnson senior Alisa Vang. “It’s fun.”
You’ll also notice almost everyone playing is Hmong.
“I was thinking to myself,” said Johnson senior Pajar Vang, “why is there a lot of Hmong girls playing badminton?”
Badminton is a girls varsity sport in Minnesota. Of the 18 schools that field teams, 15 of them are in Minneapolis or St. Paul.
In Minneapolis, only roughly 7 percent of students are Hmong, but the overall percentage on badminton rosters is much higher.
In St. Paul, one in three students is Hmong. Yet, the high school teams are almost entirely Hmong.
“And we’re really proud of being Hmong, as a community,” said Johnson’s Genda Lee.
And Hmong players don’t just dominate the sport in participation numbers, but also in matches. Harding and Johnson’s predominantly Hmong teams have split the last 10 state titles, and only a handful of non-Hmong players have won singles or doubles championships.
Why is this sport so dominated by Hmong girls?
“Well, so, you know, we’re not that tall,” Harding’s Panyia Vue said with a laugh. “That may be one of the reasons why.”
“But with badminton, it’s less of a barrier,” said Bruce Thao, the director of programs at a nonprofit group called Hmong National Development Incorporated.
He says the Hmong community’s cultural connection to badminton is thin at best — it’s not especially popular in the ancestral nations — but the classic idea of the racial comfort zone plays a part.
“When you see people that look like you really engaged in an activity or sport,” he said, “then I think that’s definitely a draw.”
“I thought, I might as well give it a shot, because a lot of the Hmong girls were playing,” Vang said. “Playing with a lot of Hmong girls, you know, it just feels like it’s a family to me.”
“And it doesn’t cost a lot to play badminton,” Thao added.
With one in four Hmong families in the Twin Cities still living in poverty, that’s a factor.
“I’ve got 60 to almost 70 girls playing,” Harding coach Tracy Hrouda said. “The great majority of those girls probably don’t play any other sport.’
She added that the girls in St. Paul start playing badminton in junior high.
That means their success has more to do with experience than ethnicity.
In the words of Johnson coach Mark Fischbach, badminton, is “the biggest sport in St. Paul right now.”