Team USA’s Wheelchair Badminton Pioneer Amy Burnett Is Paving A Path For The Next Generation
by Nicole Haase
Amy Burnett is a realist. As a 48-year-old who came to badminton late in life and is currently ranked 16th in the world, she’s hoping to place on the podium at the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023. But, she also knows a lot of things have to go her way, starting with the draw.
After all, five other women from the Americas are ranked higher than Burnett in the women’s WH1 class, and in the close-knit community of Para badminton she knows her competition well.
Yet, Burnett is also used to going after what she wants and forging a path that didn’t exist before, so it would be a mistake to count her out.
“I’m here at a tournament,” she said, “so I’m still trying to be quite competitive.”
A T4 paraplegic, Burnett discovered the sport by happenstance while watching the Olympic Games Rio 2016. At the time she was “struggling” after having to give up wheelchair tennis for health reasons. Seeing the badminton players in Rio gave her an idea.
Though badminton was not yet a Paralympic sport — it debuted at Tokyo 2020 — she reached out to the Badminton World Federation to find out if there was such a thing as Para badminton. An official there connected her with Steve Kearney, an American coach who was very happy with her racquet sports experience, and her Para badminton journey began.
As the first and currently only wheelchair user with USA Badminton, there has been a steep learning curve for Burnett in the six years since she first took up the sport. None of the American coaches had taught a wheelchair player before. Not only does her disability limit the ways she can move and handle a racquet, but singles wheelchair badminton uses half the court, and the first six feet from the net (the front service line) is considered out of bounds.
With no previous experience for athlete or coaching staff, Burnett said she learned by doing.
It has been a meandering route, but one that has brought her to Santiago for her second straight Parapan Ams appearance, with the badminton tournaments beginning Wednesday. Burnett is joined by Richard Alcaraz (SL4), Jayci Simon (SH6) and Miles Krajewski (SH6) in representing the United States in Chile.
Some participation numbers show that badminton might be the second most popular sport in the world, behind only soccer, with estimates of more than 330 million worldwide players. But the game has not caught on as much in the Americas as it has in other parts of the world.
Still, racquet sports beyond tennis tend to be more popular in Central and South America, and Burnett said she’s seen growing support for badminton in some of those countries. So while Burnett always wants to win, she also knows that many of her competitors are in line for payouts and subsidized housing when they end up on the podium.
“I’m sad when I lose, but I’m very happy for my opponents when they win,” she said. “I want to win, but how can you not be happy that these people are going to get the things they’re going to get?”
Burnett’s selflessness and care for her competitors is evident not just in her graciousness on the court, but also in how much she is involved off the court. She sits on the USA Badminton board of directors, is chair of the athlete advisory committee and sits on the high-performance athlete advisory group. She also has a seat on the Para athletes commission for the Badminton World Federation, where she said she is the only female that represents the Americas.
“I really do love representing the athletes,” she said. “I do a better job representing their voices than getting on a podium.
“I really feel like the athletes don’t get heard. Are they getting funded? Are they getting supported? What are they getting other than wear and tear on their body for their country?”
These various roles amount to a lot of commitment, but Burnett said it’s natural to want to do it for her fellow badminton players because, despite playing several organized sports before finding badminton, she said she never experienced the kind of support, camaraderie and kindness she receives from the Para badminton community.
“I’ve never seen people like this before,” she said. “We love each other in this sport. It’s an absolutely beautiful group of individuals across the board. They’re all nice and friendly. It’s an amazing feeling. You just don’t feel that everywhere.”
Even fellow U.S. athletes from other sports have pointed out how unusual the open fellowship among badminton athletes is, Burnett said. The atmosphere in the badminton hall in Santiago is loud, bright and fun, she said. And that, more than anything, has kept her coming back to keep competing and working towards podium finishes.
“I’m having fun,” she said. “I live in an RV six months of the year. I get to travel all over and go into different clubs and meet people and introduce them to Para badminton.”
Coaching is likely on the horizon for Burnett, who said at 48 she’s feeling ready to retire, though she said she’ll play at least through next season to finish out her current board appointments.
“I’m the very first female wheelchair user to be classified as a coach for both able-bodied and Para athletes,” she said. “I would love to transition to coaching.”
It’s important to her to spread awareness of Para badminton, particularly for wheelchair users. She’s received resistance and been turned away from some badminton clubs who aren’t accessible and don’t want her wheelchair to scuff or tear their floors and padding, she said.
There is still so much work to be done to educate people and make the sport welcoming for all. She doesn’t want her stint with Team USA to be the beginning and end of wheelchair representation on the team.
“We’re looking for you,” she said. “Come join us. We need you. We want you.”