Howard Shu, Badminton Champ and Sneakerhead, Heads to the Olympics

Anaheim's Howard Shu is competing in badminton at this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He's also a shoe collector, with over 100 pairs. (Susan Valot/KQED)

Howard Shu is the highest-ranked U.S. badminton player in men's singles -- and like many of the players on his team, he's from Southern California. He's also a shoe collector, with close to 100 pairs of sneakers.

How'd you start playing badminton?

I actually picked up the sport when I was about 8 years old. My father was the one who put the racket in my hand. He used to play before he immigrated here from Taiwan.

What did you like about it?

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It's fast-scoring, high-paced. It's really physically demanding on the body.

Yet a lot of people seem to have some misconceptions about badminton. They don't take it very seriously. 

The main misconception is that badminton is a backyard sport. Kind of a sport that you're enjoying a beer in the backyard with friends. A lot of people don't know that it's actually only played indoors, and it's the fastest racket sport. The shuttle was actually recorded off-racket at over 300 miles an hour.

I understand you actually fell in love with the sport after you lost your first tournament. 

I was about 10 years old, and was new to the sport. I lost to the number one junior at that time. My mother went to that kid's mother, and said, 'Your son is really good. Would he like to play doubles with my son this year?' His mom told my mom, 'No, your son sucks,' referring to me. I wanted to come back and beat him. That was my motivation and drive at that young age.

A lot of the players on the U.S. badminton team come from Asian immigrant families, and many of them grew up in Southern California? Is that a coincidence? 

L.A. and Southern California is really one of the hot spots for badminton. It used to be a predominantly Asian sport, and Asia is where a lot of the powerhouses are. But in the last decade, it's really been growing a lot, especially in Europe.

But what's the California connection?

Most of the badminton clubs are here, in Southern California or San Francisco. I think San Francisco alone has over 15 badminton clubs. Down here, we have close to 10. It's not one of those sports that you can just go to the park and play. You really need a facility to play at, so that's why a lot of the players are probably here.

Is it really true that you have 100 pairs of shoes in your collection?

A lot of people call me the Shu guy. I do have close to 100 pairs of shoes.  Growing up, Michael Jordan was one of my favorite athletes. I'm really into basketball culture. I remember watching him on TV, and he had a different pair of shoes every game, and I thought that was awesome. So when I was 11 or 12 years old, I started collecting sneakers.  There's kind of a term among sneakerheads, 'one to rock, and one to stock.'  Sometimes I might have duplicates of pairs that I really like.

What would it mean for you and your family to bring home a medal?

For me, it would be a dream come true. I'm 25, and I've been playing 17 years now. It's been a combination of hard work and sacrifice. Especially for my family.  My parents immigrating here, they really came here with a dream. [Back in Taiwan], my mother wanted to be in track and field. When she had kids here, she really wanted to give us the opportunities that she didn't have.