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Birdies and Benching

By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Apr 1, 2017 8:00 AM

Club sports off the beaten path.


In the bowels of the Bear Cave, Jenna Minami gets ready to attempt a squat lift, spotted by fellow lifter Michael Wong. Photos by Dominic Disaia '97.

In athletics, UCLA's reputation as a powerhouse is undeniable. But there’s a whole other world that exists beyond the highly publicized NCAA sports of basketball and football: Club Sports, which offers hundreds of students the chance to compete in everything from archery to Quidditch to wushu. These athletes proudly represent the blue and gold, both nationally and internationally, and are just as fiercely competitive as, say, Josh Rosen or Lonzo Ball.

Take UCLA Badminton and UCLA Powerlifting, two popular coed club sports that probably couldn’t be more different in design or structure. Badminton is a fast-paced sport in which players use a lightweight racket to hit the shuttlecock (or birdie) over the net at their opponents. The action moves fast — just when you think the birdie is about to hit the floor, a player will scoop it out of mid-air and whack it over the net. It’s scary how hard and fast the birdies are hit. Accuracy and fleetness of foot would seem to be crucial skills.

By contrast, the emphasis in powerlifting is on sheer strength and form. Eric Du, president of UCLA’s Powerlifting Club, says that many people tend to confuse powerlifting with weightlifting. Both sports use barbells, but the lifts are completely different: Weightlifters employ the snatch and the clean and jerk, lifting the barbell from the ground to overhead. Powerlifters use three main lifts — the squat, the bench press and the deadlift — and never raise the barbell above their heads.


Showing the proper form to execute a deadlift is Marc Morgan, who competes in the 66kg (145 pounds) weight class.

A quick primer: For the squat, the lifter balances the barbell on his/her shoulders. At a command from the judge, the lifter stands up straight, bends deeply at the knees, and then straightens up again. For the bench press, the lifter lies on his back on a bench, grabs the barbell from the rack above his head, lowers it to his chest and then lifts it back onto the rack. For the deadlift, the athlete picks up the barbell from the ground and holds it for a few seconds, arms straight down. A good lift will receive three white lights from the judges; a bad lift, three red lights. At the end of the competition, athletes tally a sum of the pounds they have successfully lifted.

By contrast, badminton uses no judges — and sometimes not even referees. At a recent “friendly” meet with UC Berkeley at the John Wooden Center’s Pardee Gym, players used the honor system and kept their own scores. (Each match is best two out of three games, with a maximum of 21 points per game.) Six courts hummed with action in men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles.

Stephanie Lam, president of UCLA Badminton and a third-year computer science major, is happy about the prospects for her 30-member team, which is fairly evenly divided between men and women. Most have been playing for many years, and some have competed internationally. UCLA’s team, which belongs to the Southern California Collegiate Badminton League, seems to be a magnet for accomplished players, Lam says, but she and vice president Michael Xiong encourage students of all skill levels to join.


Graduate student Isaac Wang ’15 shows serious hops as he performs a jump smash.

“A lot of girls on our team were basically starting from scratch,” Lam says. “They knew how to play recreationally, but they didn’t really have the technical foundation, so we started teaching them the basic skills. It’s really nice to see how much they’ve improved this year.”

If you have a picture in your mind of ladies in long dresses batting birdies around, though, think again. The team’s coach, Katherine Tor ’15, runs grueling, three-hour practices that include warm-up, drills and a physical endurance workout that calls for running “suicides” across the gym until the players can’t go anymore.

On the night of the UC Berkeley meet, two accomplished players paired up for the first time: Darren Lo and Iris Wang. Lo, a freshman, has traveled to Canada, Guatemala and Peru as part of the Badminton World Federation team. Wang, a second-year pre-business/economics major, represented the U.S. at the Rio Olympics last summer. Not surprisingly, Lo and Wang won their match.

“This was my first tournament after the Olympics, so I was quite nervous!” says Wang, laughing. “Normally, I play singles, so playing mixed doubles was different. But it was fun.” Although she didn’t medal in Rio, Wang is not ruling out another try in 2020.

Powerlifting is not an Olympic sport, but UCLA’s team has sent members to the collegiate nationals, and Du plans to do so again this April when the competition is held in San Antonio, Texas. UCLA’s club — a member of the USA Powerlifting federation — was one of the first clubs on the West Coast when it began in 2009. Of the roughly 30 members, approximately one-fifth are women.


“Powerlifting is a small sport, but it’s starting to blow up,” says Du, a third-year physiological sciences major who competes in the 83 kilogram (183 pounds) weight class. He is constantly searching for ways to recruit members, but probably the best incentive he has found is the “Bear Cave” — a tiny gym located underneath the Drake Stadium bleachers that contains all the equipment the club needs for its thrice-weekly practices. It’s a cramped, dark space, but they’re extremely fond of it.

According to freshman Brian Raymond, who recently placed first in his weight/age class at the Juggernaut Winter Open in Laguna Niguel, Calif., having a dedicated time and place to work out is extremely convenient. “We call our area the ‘Bear Cave’ because it’s a pit that not many people know about,” he says. “We’re kind of in hibernation.”

Even the team’s coach, Angelo Agustin ’13, uses the space as motivation. “One thing I tell my lifters is, ‘Close your eyes and pretend you’re back in the Bear Cave. You’ve lifted this before and you will do it again,’” he says. “The goal is to set them in a comfortable place mentally and get rid of their nerves.”

Nerves did not seem to faze Nanette Jarenwattananon on her way to first place in the women’s 63 kilogram (138 pounds) weight class at the Juggernaut meet. Currently in her fifth year of a Ph.D. program in physical chemistry, Jarenwattananon started lifting one and a half years ago as a New Year’s resolution and wound up loving the sport.

“Some people say, you’re going to get too big, you’re going to get too bulky,” Jarenwattananon says. “And I just say, look, have I gotten big and bulky? And they say no. OK, then, there you go! I’ve never been happier with my body, because I know what it’s capable of doing, and it’s capable of picking 330 pounds up off the floor. So that’s pretty impressive, I think!”