MILPITAS -- In a sweltering gym devoted to all things badminton, four teenage players fired shuttlecocks at one another with relentless fury, preparing themselves to serve as America's first badminton ambassadors to the World University Games next week in Kazan, Russia.
The two male and two female players -- Michael Buasan, 18, of Rocklin; Randy Ma, 19, of Cupertino; Danae Long, 19, of Fremont; and Sharon Ng, 19, of Sunnyvale -- attend college at schools from San Jose State to Wellesley College in Massachusetts. But they all grew up playing badminton with -- and against -- one another as their sport grew up along with them and 13 badminton gyms sprung up in the Bay Area, said Ng's mother, Amy, who will serve as the team manager in Russia.
Of 380 competitive junior players around the country, 65 percent of them come from the Bay Area, said Halim Ho, who is coaching the four players heading to Russia and was a member of the 2001 World Champion badminton doubles team representing Indonesia.
For the four players, the opportunity to represent America at the World University Games offers the chance to bring more U.S. attention to their sport and perhaps one day lead to college scholarships for the next generation of young players coming up behind them.
"It's still not a well-known sport in this country," Long said.
She played three years of varsity badminton at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont. But there is no opportunity for her to play at a highly competitive level at San Francisco State, where she goes to school.
Buasan and his mother, Felicia, have been making the 149-mile, 21/2-hour drive from Rocklin to Milpitas as often as three times a week so Michael can get both quality coaching and competition in the Bay Area.
"I tried to get him to play other sports, like basketball, soccer and even golf," Felicia Buasan said as she recently watched her son and dozens of other players work out at Milpitas' nonprofit Bay Badminton Center. "For him, over the last 10 years, it's always been badminton."
Despite the lingering impression that badminton is a gentle sport reserved for backyard barbecues, Ma said the attraction for competitive players like him comes from the combination of endurance, hand-eye coordination and explosive shots.
"It is the fastest racket sport," he said.
Obstacles remain as the team prepares to leave on Sunday, followed by team play July 5-7 and individual matches July 9-11.
Their uniforms, which are required to include both their names and "USA," have yet to arrive. And the cost of the trip, about $4,000 per person, means that Ho, the other coach, Kowi Chandra, and the parents of three of the athletes won't be able to attend.
So Ng's father, Ray, will stand in as coach. But it won't be his first experience at the World University Games. In the 1979 games in Mexico City, Ng was a shooting guard on Hong Kong's basketball team.
But the biggest challenge for the U.S. badminton team will be the level of international competition they'll face.
The top teams are expected to come from China, Malaysia and Indonesia, Ho said. The second tier is likely to be led by Denmark and England.
So it's unlikely that the U.S. players will medal -- whether individually or in various combinations of doubles teams, Ng said.
But the opportunity to represent their country in the World University Games means another milestone for both the players' individual careers and the sport that they've loved since childhood.
"These players all started out when they were about 10 years old," said Harry Tam, the owner of Bay Badminton Center. "It's their passion. They love the sport."
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.