When it came to the luck of the draw at the Tokyo Olympics, badminton player Timothy Lam had no luck at all. The Mountain View resident faced the top-ranked player – and defending world champ – in his first men’s singles match.
“Before the match, I knew it was going to be tough,” Lam said of playing Japan’s Kento Momota July 25. “My mindset was to do my best and try to give him a run for his money.”
Momota prevailed 21-12, 21-9, but Lam was proud of his effort.
“After the match, I was pretty exhausted; I had to work extremely hard to earn a point,” the 2015 graduate of Los Altos High said. “I think I did a good job of making him earn his points.”
Lam didn’t have much time to recover. A day later, he went up against another highly ranked player in his second match. South Korea’s Heo Kwang-hee defeated him 21-10, 21-15.
“I was more comfortable – I was a little nervous in the first match – and I thought I did a pretty good job,” Lam said. “Especially playing back-to-back days.”
The loss eliminated Lam from the tournament, while Kwang-hee shocked Momota in straight games in his next match and advanced as far as the quarterfinals.
The long road to Tokyo
Lam’s Olympic experience may have been brief, but he relished it after what he went through to get there. There are no Olympic trials for badminton; Lam said players qualify “based on a world ranking quota system.” Years in the making, a player’s rank is determined by points earned at tournaments held around the world.
“The qualifying process was pretty tough, even before COVID,” he said. “It took two to three years. During that time, I traveled a lot, competed a lot and trained a lot.”
Lam was the lone American to qualify for the Olympics in men’s singles and among only four badminton players on Team USA. Countries can send up to two singles players, if they are both ranked among the top 16; at No. 86, Lam was the highest-ranked American. Lam said he was a few thousand points ahead of his challenger for that coveted spot, a player who ranked around 100.
Lam didn’t find out he qualified until July 5 – just two weeks before leaving for Tokyo.
“It was late notice,” he said, “but it was a sense of relief to reach that goal.”
Soaking it all in
With no illusions of winning gold, Lam went to Japan with another goal in mind: Savor every moment.
“After qualifying, I was looking forward to the experience. I wanted to enjoy every game, every match and give my 100 percent every match,” he said. “I think I achieved that.”
As for the highlight of his 11 days in Tokyo, Lam couldn’t select just one.
“It’s a tie between stepping on the badminton court for the first match and walking out in the opening ceremony,” he said.
Due to COVID-related restrictions, Lam’s only chance to mingle with Olympians in other sports came at the opening ceremony. Lam said he met several members of the USA men’s basketball team and even got a selfie with Kevin Durant, who later led the Americans to gold.
Lam had to leave Japan within 48 hours of his last match and is now back in Mountain View studying for the CPA exam.
Taking time off
After devoting his life to badminton upon graduating from Cal Poly Pomona in 2018 – training up to six days a week – Lam is taking a break from the sport.
“I haven’t played since I’ve been back, but I’m keeping in shape,” the 23-year-old said last week.
Lam took up the game at age 6 – “It was something my parents wanted me to do to stay active,” he said – and joined his first club team in elementary school.
“Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed the uniqueness of the sport,” the seven-time U.S. Junior National champion said. “It kept me busy and distracted me from my studies. It’s helped me become a mature, strong individual.”
Lam isn’t ready to give it up, planning to at least play recreationally in the near future, but he’s not ready to commit to making a run at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“As of now, I haven’t thought about it yet,” he said. “I’ll leave that open.”