When you first played badminton in your backyard or at a picnic, did you think it would change your life?
Neither did Shannon Pohl, but now she is a former No. 1 ranked U.S. women's badminton player and the first badminton coach to be nominated by the U.S. Olympic Committee for Developmental Coach of the Year.
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The Arlington Heights native and Prospect High School grad, now retired from play, operates the Shannon Pohl Badminton Academy in Vernon Hills. She conducts classes for individuals and groups, and runs pro and amateur tournaments, as well as an open gym. Her work at the academy led her to become the 2012 USA Badminton Developmental Coach of the Year.
Clearly, badminton has become a big part of her life, and she would do it all again in a heartbeat.
"I've had the most amazing experiences in my life because of badminton," Pohl said. "It's given me so much, allowed me to represent my country, travel across the world to every continent, and meet new friends and cultures. I've made friends for life."
The ride has not been easy or entirely smooth. There was a downside to pursuing an Olympic dream. Shannon spent years working her way up the ranks of the U.S. badminton ladder to try to make the Olympic squad, but the timing did not work out in her favor.
Pohl was working full-time as a graphic designer, but if she wanted to attend the Olympics she knew her full-time job would have to be badminton. So, before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she left her job and moved to Denmark to train. She spent thousands of dollars on her own training, coaches, equipment, doctors, travel and living expenses. Because badminton is not as popular of a sport, all the financial burden of making the Olympics falls on the athlete. She is still paying off the debt from that Olympic run.
Despite her efforts, she missed the cut by one rank. In order to make the Olympics, a U.S. badminton athlete had to hold the top spot in the rankings. Shannon was in second place at the time. Then, in 2009, she earned the number one spot on the U.S. women's badminton rankings, just a year too late.
After 2009, she decided it was time to retire from her national efforts as a player. Her funding had run out, and she wanted to pursue the next passion in her life: coaching.
Her training in Denmark, with coach Michael Kjeldsen, taught her the skills she needed to become a coach, and her playing career helps her relate to her trainees and what they are going through.
Success in coaching badminton came naturally for Pohl, and her students have enjoyed their own success with help from her. Seven of her students won their Illinois High School Association sectional championships, 19 qualified for the 2013 IHSA State Championships, and four earned medals. These achievements paved the way for the USOC Developmental Coach of the Year nomination. Although she did not win that award, she is honored to be the first badminton coach to be a finalist for it.
"It didn't even matter (not winning), just being there and meeting all those top coaches and making the connections was amazing," Shannon said. "It was a really exciting time."
Just before leaving for the USOC awards in Colorado, she held the biggest annual badminton tournament in the Midwest, the North Shore Open. Sponsored by Wilson and hosted by Pohl at her academy, the North Shore Open attracts local, national, and international players of all skill levels and ages to compete. Players from Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Indiana, Massachusetts, California, Puerto Rico and Scotland all came to play. From kids as young as age five to international greats, everyone got to compete in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles events throughout the weekend.
After the tournament, Shannon had to fly to Colorado the next day. When she returned, she went right back to her training sessions and preparing for her goal: coaching an athlete in the Olympics.