The Blue Devils badminton team has taken the world of collegiate sport by storm. After winning the Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association (ACAA) championships four years in a row, the talented athletes at the University of King’s College are preparing to bring their skills to a whole new level. Five of them will be competing at the 2023 Canada Winter Games in Prince Edward Island.
The accomplished students are representing their home provinces at the quadrennial event, which runs from February 18 to March 5. Aidan Badcock-Parks, Ritu Shah and Thomas Ashton will be bringing their A-game for Team Nova Scotia, and Team New Brunswick has the star sibling duo Anna and Jack Gillies.
“These are players who are elite-level players, but also get elite-level results,” says Athletics Director Neil Hooper. He says the badminton team is one of the best sports programs ever run at King’s, and the multiple medals the Blue Devils win at national competitions certainly backs that up. “We’re extremely proud,” he says. “The competition at the Canada Games will be very stiff, but I think they will all hold their own there for sure.”
Facing off against the best badminton players in the country is a challenge, and first-year science student and Provincial Loran Award winner Shah loves a good challenge. “I think it should be very competitive. I’m super excited for it,” she says. The road to the Canada Games for Shah and her teammates is intense—six or seven days of training a week on-court and in the gym. “It’s been very physical, in the last month or so especially.”
Before moving to Bedford in grade 10, Shah grew up in India, where badminton is “like hockey here, where it’s so popular that you just want to play it,” she says. “I started playing at age 10, and I just really loved it, so I haven’t stopped ever since.” Shah looks forward to showing off her “attacking” style of play for Team Nova Scotia.
Fourth-year chemistry student Gillies from Saint John, N.B. also likes to play on the offense. “I’m very aggressive on the court,” he says. “I like to grind my opponents down physically, to drag the rallies out as much as I can and kind of tiring them out, wearing them out before I get worn out.”
The Canada Games requires mental preparation off-court as well, Gillies says. The matches take place in a big venue filled with fans, which means “it will be loud” and “might be a little uncomfortable.” But there is an upside to the crowds. “All the fans from New Brunswick there will be cheering you on, so it’s really special.”
Badcock-Parks of Bedford is also excited to experience the atmosphere at a multi-sport, national event. “The crowd’s going to play into it, so it’ll be at a whole different level. It’s going to be off the charts,” the third-year political science student says. “I’m looking forward to the experience of being able to go out and support other Team Nova Scotia members in their sport doing what they love to do.”
Last year’s Male Rookie of the Year at King’s is eager to show the world what he’s got. “I’ve probably had a racket in my hand for the last 15 years,” he says. Badcock-Parks explains that starting a sport when you’re young, you play purely for fun, not knowing what doors it could open. “I’ve been lucky enough over the course of my career, playing for fun never dwindled. It’s still fun walking out on court. Everything that badminton has given me has just been above and beyond what I ever thought it could be.”
Ashton, a second-year microbiology and immunology student from Halifax, thinks his home province has a better shot at success this year than past games. “I think Nova Scotia has a bit of an underdog mindset, especially because it doesn’t have the highest population,” he says. “My teammates, I think they’re really strong and we all have a really good chance to do well.”
This steady, defence-oriented athlete has dreamed of being selected for the Canada Games since he was a kid. Ashton remembers watching as older players were chosen for the event. “I just wanted to be that one day,” he says. “It’s really exciting to get to represent the province because I’ve grown up here and lived here all my life.”
What these student athletes have in common, besides prowess on the court, is that they see King’s as the place to be when it comes to badminton. “So many of the good players from Atlantic Canada end up at King’s, and I’m so lucky to be a part of such an incredible team like this one” Shah says.
Hooper explains that King’s badminton had humble beginnings in the early 2000s, when Mount Allison University dominated the league. The 2017/2018 season was a turning point for the Blue Devils when they usurped Mount Allison, and they’ve been on a roll ever since. “It’s just been a great story, the whole coming of age of this badminton program,” the athletics director says. “It became a sport that has been a great source of pride for us over the years.”
“The athletics department, they push really hard for us. They give us all the tools and resources we need to pursue excellence.” Gillies says. “People want to be a part of a winning program, and I think King’s has really developed that winning program.”