When Gunn sophomore Allison Lee and her badminton teammate Francesca (“Frankie”) Corbett, a sophomore at Hillsdale High in San Mateo, walk onto the courts of the Gimnasio “El Sagrado Corazón de Jesús” in Guatemala City on Thursday for the XXIV Pan Am Individual Championships, they will be among the youngest players.
The Pan Ams are part of the Olympic qualification process and their first-round opponents are Mexico’s Sabrina Solis, age 24, and Vanessa Karmine Villalobos Vazquez, age 19.
An intimidation factor, maybe?
Uh … not exactly.
“We take into account they’re older and change strategy,” Corbett said. “It’s about going out, getting more experience and play our best match. Our coaches keep reminding us that we have to be good communicators and to understand what each of us is thinking. On the junior circuit, that was one of our strengths."
The teens (Lee is 16, Corbett turns 16 in June) have been preparing for this challenge a couple of years now, after winning the women’s doubles title at the Junior Pan Ams in 2019, held in Moncton, Canada, where they beat the top-seeded duo in the finals.
The pair trains six days a week and have traveled to international tournaments in Brazil and elsewhere. They’ve competed against some of the top players in the sport.
This isn’t your everyday high school, social function. This is elite stuff. This is the road to the Olympics.
“In Brazil we’re able to play top players,” Lee said. “Sometimes against the older players, if we win or go to three sets, they’re surprised."
Lee and Corbett may not be in the running for Team USA, at least not this year, but they could wind up playing future Olympians along the way.
Lee and Corbett have been playing together for about seven years now and both have been exposed to Olympic-style training. Lee’s father, retired Palo Alto police officer Benjamin Lee, played badminton for the U.S. in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games and coached at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
“My dad let me play whatever I wanted,” Lee said. “Over time I gravitated to badminton and it felt right.”
Lee is not related to Gunn grad Adrian Lee, a Central Coast Section badminton champion a couple of years ago, but they have trained together, mainly through his high school years. Adrian was a very good player at the junior national level.
Corbett and Lee have bigger designs. They’re on course to compete at the international level.
“The way she coaches it feels like an international tournament,” Lee said. “She wants to teach us new strategies, both physically and mentally.”
Communication has been key for both players. Badminton has been called the “fastest racket sport” and it takes split-second decisions.
“We have to have a flexible mindset because we can change strategies on every point,” Lee said. “When we were put together, we instantly clicked. It felt like everything worked.”
When Lee and Corbett travel to international competition, they can expect a larger audience.
“It’s exciting to see so many people watching,” Lee said. “There are big crowds most of the time. We’re excited about playing again, especially such a great tournament like this, when we’ll be playing adults.”
Main draws are scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. (PDT) Thursday. The event can be followed at this online link.