Gail Emms MBE has represented England in badminton since the 1990s, won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics and retired from professional sport after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. She recently played for Team Derby in the AJ Bell National Badminton League (NBL) finals, won by the Birmingham Lions. We caught up with Gail about badminton in the UK and her time at Dame Alice Harpur School, now Bedford Girls’ School.
What kind of impact is the AJ Bell National Badminton League (NBL) having on badminton in the UK?
Badminton in the UK in general is seen as a minority sport. It’s always seen as a hobby, something you might take at school, in your back garden or maybe on the beach. It’s very hard for people to see it as an Olympic sport. It’s trying to get that jump from [a social sport] to elite. The badminton league, the NBL, is something I’ve been championing since I was a young badminton player – it’s so frustrating because to play regular matches, we have to go abroad. If you want to play for a club, there was no club set up in England that was good enough. So we have to go to Germany or Denmark or Holland to play. We [said], can’t we set up something in England? It’s been really good, there are still a few teething issues and we’re trying to work some stuff out but it’s amazing. There are six teams, and two more added for next year, so we’ve really grown the league within three years.
You mentioned that badminton is seen as a ‘hobby sport’, but it must be much more than that. What are the key skills needed to be great at badminton?
Everything! I can’t think of any other sports – though tennis and squash are similar- that require everything. You need speed to move around the court fast, you need endurance, you need agility and flexibility, power, you need leg strength and upper body strength, good reactions, absolutely everything.
Rio 2016 is not far off now. As a former competitor, what are your thoughts on the Olympics?
I grew up watching the Olympics, I think it’s the greatest sporting event in the world. It’s an honour and a privilege to be one of 6,000 people to ever have represented Great Britain in the Olympic Games – to be in such a unique club, is such an achievement. It’s certainly not easy to compete at that level, to get to the Olympic Games, but when you’re there and you wear the tracksuit it reminds you of all the people who helped you get there and all the sacrifices you’ve made, and you feel really proud of yourself that you’ve stuck in there.
You attended Dame Alice Harpur School (now known as Bedford Girls’ School). What were your school days like?
It was a very competitive environment, we were always encouraged to really push ourselves. Whether it was academic or sport, the whole ethos was “we are going to show everyone that we’re the best”. I had that competitiveness in me anyway, that’s a personal trait that I have, but the school environment really emphasised that and so whether it was with the hockey team or school work, I still wanted to be the best, and that transferred into my badminton. It’s about training the whole person, and I was lucky that the competitive environment suited me. I did really get a lot out of it and it helped me go on towards an Olympic career.
If you hadn’t gone on to play badminton professionally, what might you have done?
It would have been some sort of sport, because that was just my thing, so I probably would have been a hockey player. But if it wasn’t sport, it would have been along the science route. Maybe if I hadn’t quite got the grades to be a doctor I might have been a physio. I love medicine – I’m fascinated by it.
What has been the highlight of your career?
I’ve got so many highlights, it’s ridiculous – and that’s a lovely thing to say. I can literally look back and honestly say that I was the best badminton player that I can be. I really enjoy just being the best version of me.
What’s next for you?
A long hot bath! I’m not sure if I could play, [the NBL final] could be my last match. If I get a chance to play again after the finals, that would be great. If not I’ll keep championing young people in sport, how important it is, because I really believe that