Raphoe woman Chloe Magee left Donegal at 17 to take up full-time badminton in Sweden. She has competed at three Olympic Games and has won three European medals
THE words of Tom Reidy are as vivid now as they were 14 years ago: ‘If you want to go further, there is something there.’
Chloe Magee was in her Leaving Certificate year at the Royal and Prior and was eyeing up college life with her friends.
Her world, though, would change utterly one weekend when her father, Sammy, took her to a badminton camp in Belfast. Reidy, a native of Limerick who played badminton for the USA in 1992, knew what he saw.
Soon, Reidy was offering the 17-year-old Magee a chance to move to Sweden and become a full-time badminton player.
“It was never something I ever thought about making a career of,” Magee, now a three-time Olympian and three-time European medallist, tells Donegal Daily/Donegal Sport Hub/Donegal Woman.
“Not in a million years. It was just sport.”
Reidy was keen, but Magee was unsure.
Sammy Magee had always been the guiding light, from the day and hour he first took his daughter in the doors of the Raphoe badminton club on the Diamond.
The teenage Magee’s mind spun as she took in Reidy’s offer to move to Sweden and play with the club, BMK Wätterstad, located in Jönköping.
The last of the exam papers had barely been handed back to the invigilator when Magee was on the plane. Her peers were off to college, but Magee was away to make a life she didn’t even know was possible.
“Everyone else was heading to college but when the chance to go to Sweden came Dad was really saying how it was too good a chance to turn down,” she says now. I couldn’t see that at the time. I was just a teenage girl who wanted to do what her friends were doing.
“Sweden was crazy. It was actually something I didn’t want to do. I had never thought about moving to a country. Even living by yourself, doing all of those things that you’ve never had to do before. All of that was on top of training full-time for the first time. That was a huge demand.”
A homesick Magee came back to Raphoe for Christmas and floated the notion of staying put.
Her pastime, her hobby, had now become effectively a job – a low-paid one at that – and the pangs for home were frequent.
That Christmas was a turning point of sorts. Sammy and Audrey Magee persuaded the young Chloe to stick it out.
She says: “The encouragement from Mum and Dad was so important. I didn’t see what I could achieve. Whenever you’re going through a really tough, physical period, where everything is changing… my diet was changing and the game was changing. All I saw was the hard work. I couldn’t see the results at the end.
“I was for stopping and just trying to find something else. My friends had started this whole college lifestyle and here was me stuck in Sweden. I didn’t speak Swedish and I had no really good friends. It was tough.
“That was a really tough period. I hated it. It’s everything around the sport that you hate. You just have to learn to adapt. Deep down, I loved the sport, but I couldn’t see that or feel that because I was feeling so shitty all the time.
“I was tired all the time. My body was adapting to a really big increase in what I was doing. I got really homesick about six months in. I went home for Christmas and I just didn’t want to go back.
“I hadn’t played in too many tournaments because Tom just wanted to get my technical side better. It wasn’t for me.
“I was crying my eyes out to Mum. She told me to give it a chance. It was one of those make or break points. If I hadn’t gone back to Sweden, I’d never have achieved anything in badminton.”
Just five months later, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) confirmed the name of Chloe Magee as one of the participants for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
LAST June, Magee was announced as the flag-bearer for Team Ireland at the 2019 European Games in Minsk.
On June 21st Magee led the Irish team to the opening ceremony at the Dinamo Stadium.
It was a highlight and the beginning of a week that remains Magee’s career highlight: “It was such a great feeling, walking out holding the flag and the whole team behind me. It was a special moment.”
Four years previously, Magee and her brother Sam were bronze medallists at the first edition of the European Games in Baku and in 2017 they won bronze at the European Championships in Denmark.
Minsk, though, was different.
The Magees won their opening mixed doubles game against Russian pair Evgenij Dremin and Evgenia Dimova.
A narrow defeat to French pair Thom Gicquel and Delphine Delrue left the nerves jangling, but a win over the Belarus duo Aleksei Konak and Kristina Silich took them to the knockout phase.
The bronze medal was sealed in dramatic fashion, a 21-19 21-17 win over Netherlands’ Robin Tabeling and Selena Piek.
Their bid for glory ended at the Falcon Club with a semi-final loss to Chris Adock and Gabby Adcock, but the place on the podium was secured.
“There are so many highlights when I look back but for performance and for a huge achievement, it’s Minsk,” Magee says.
“All of the best pairs were there. There was no-one you could point and say they didn’t take part.
“The mixed doubles was so strong. The field was just packed. Everyone was saying before it how anyone could come out with the medals. To be one of those pairs in an Olympic qualification period was brilliant.
“Being there in a multi-sport event with the Olympic Council there, we had great support behind the scenes. It’s a week that I’ll never, ever forget.”
An hour later, the conversation returns to Minsk and you wonder if, perhaps, something else could overtake it.
“Everything about Minsk was so good, it was one of the best weeks ever,” she says.
“All the write-ups were talking up the mixed doubles. We could easily have gone home from the group. To be standing on that podium was unbelievable.
“Minsk was just such a buzz. All the best players were there. To come away with that medal was just the best feeling.”
Being given the role of Ireland’s flag-bearer was a mark of her standing.
“I couldn’t believe that they had picked me,” she says.
“I could have named out at least five other people who should have been ahead of me. The day before we went out, they asked me to say a few words to the team: ‘You want me to stand up in front of those great athletes and say something?’
“I remember just standing there thinking: ‘Wow!’ It’s one thing to stand in front of a classroom of kids, but to stand in front of all those great athletes from different sports, that was something else. It was a big moment.
“I don’t get nervous before I go on court, but I’m in control there. I was just standing there and everyone was just looking up at me, waiting to hear what I had to say.”
BEIJING was a whirlwind.
At 19 years old, Magee stepped onto the Olympic stage for the first time.
She created history, too, at the Beijing University of Technology. In beating Kati Tolmoff from Estonia, Magee became the first Irishwoman ever to win a badminton match at the Olympic Games.
The Raphoe woman bowed out following a defeat to the then world number 11 Jun Jae-Youn of South Korea, but the big decisions were already beginning to pay off.
“It’s funny because nothing was towards Beijing,” Magee says.
“Tom was just saying to do my best. He didn’t care about tournaments. He just wanted to see me improve on what we were doing in training.”
The journey wasn’t all rosy in the lead-up.
Magee made the semi-final of one tournament in Norway and was delighted.
Reidy’s mood was dark, though: “Tom was so pissed off with how I had played, he hardly spoke to me the whole way home. He was so annoyed with my performance. To me, the result didn’t matter because he wasn’t pleased with how I played.”
Reidy was demanding and Magee would reflect later: “Tom was very blunt, he would say ‘you know you’re not in shape, you’re not an athlete, your technical skills are not good enough, your footwork is not good enough, you need to improve all these things and that’s even if you want to compete in international badminton’.
“At that time I was quite lazy, I didn’t know what it was to be an international badminton player and he was like ‘you can’t continue what you are doing, that’s not going to get you anywhere’.”
Pre-Beijing, Magee reached the final of the US Open in Orange County, losing out to Lili Zhou in the decider. The form was good by now.
The Olympic Games in Beijing came as a jolt for someone who had only sat her Leaving Cert a little over a year previously and who, the previous Christmas, sobbed into her mother’s shoulder as the homesickness took hold.
She says: “China is the powerhouse in badminton. To have an Olympic games there and get a chance to play badminton…That is probably one of the biggest stages you’ll walk on to play badminton.
“Tom said to me to soak it up and take it all in. I had never been to Asia before to play badminton so it was crazy.
“I was very young and didn’t really take it all in. There was so much from the Olympic village to playing in the games…it was a whirlwind that just seemed to pass so quickly. It was over in no time.
“The Olympics is a huge experience. It’s something that you can’t experience it apart from what it is…You just can’t put it into words. It was a crazy experience.
“You have to be mentally ready for it because you get such a high and then a low. If you aren’t ready for that, it can really eat you up.”
BADMINTON was always a part of life in the Magee household.
At school, Magee was noted when picked to play for Ireland at just 16. Others were realising what she hadn’t seen herself.
Then again, she’d never looked into the mirror of Chloe the sportswoman.
She says: “I enjoyed it and I never put pressure on myself to be anything.
“By the time I was 17, I had a lot of energy left to push on. Sometimes you can train so hard when you’re a kid, you can miss that when you get to a bigger stage because you’ve done so much.
“On the other side, I could have developed more if I had proper coaching…It depends how you look at it.”
She played hockey, too, at school, and was always a sports enthusiast.
“I played every sport I could play,” she says.
“I played a bit of tennis – but I wasn’t good at all.
“When I was at school, I always played badminton. I enjoyed playing with my friends.
“I loved watching Venus Williams playing tennis. I’d watch wimbledon and think: ‘wow they’re really good’. I was always amazed by people who were good athletes. I became interested in what they were doing: ‘Why are they in such good shape?’
WHEN Magee beat Egypt’s Hadia Hosny in her opening match of the 2012 Olympic Games at London’s Wembley Arena, her name his the headlines.
Even some front pages carried her story.
Alas, the fact that she had beaten Hosny 21-17 21-6 was by now a mere footnote.
On RTÉ’s live coverage of the game, anchor Bill O’Herlihy drew the ire of the public when he mentioned that badminton, when he was growing up, was ‘seen as a Protestant sport’.
Magee’s phone went into overdrive.
Magee spoke the following day to Shaun Doherty on Highland Radio and batted away the comments when she said: “We need to remember what the Olympics is all about. There are people here from all over the world and from many different religions. I’m sure he didn’t mean to say it. Why bring something like this into it?”
RTÉ was inundated with complaints and later issued an apology.
“It was a crazy, crazy thing,” she says now.
“You don’t watch you own games like that. those things can play on your mind. When I got back to the village, my phone was going crazy. I didn’t know what was going on.
“I was getting calls and texts everywhere and I was advised not to answer any of them. I had to do one because so many people were on so I got my side out and people could take from that.
“For someone to come out with that on national tv was crazy.
“For me, sport is for everyone. I never read too much into it. So many people were contacting me and it was nothing to do with badminton. Sport is for everyone and that’s that…especially when it comes to religion.”
London, just across the pond, was a memorable Olympics and Donegal was well represented.
Magee might have lost to Pi Hongyan of France in her second game, after pushing the match into a third set, but London remains high up on the list of moments.
“London was one of the best times of my life,” she says.
“Everything was brilliant about London. It was a really good Olympics.
“The whole Team Ireland, everyone came together. It was such a great environment and atmosphere and it was a brilliant team to be a part of.
“It was different, too, because the family were there and there was so much media in London. It was a crazy experience – in a really good way. That’s something I’ll never forget.
“I felt good before London. I had a really good year and had played some of my best badminton, beating people I’d never beaten before.
“I performed really well and missed out in three sets to the seeded French player, Hongyan. I had a chance to win. It took me a while to get over that. It was one of those things. It was a really good year.
“Beijing was a big help for London. I didn’t even go into the village as early. I knew a lot from Beijing. I knew what to expect. I was way more prepared for London.”
THE life of the professional sportsperson is not all glamour.
In a Lima airport in April 2016, Magee thought the journey was over.
She had lost out to Turkey’s Ozfe Bayrak 21-18, 15-21, 21-8, and she considered quitting the sport as she prepared for the 12-hour flight home.
She hadn’t qualified for the 2016 Olympics and was drained.
The demons were plenty in the mind as she flew from Lima to Dublin.
She had shelved the mixed doubles qualification bid the previous winter to concentrate on the singles and she sealed a place at the Olympics at the European Championships a couple of weeks after shaking the head clear from Lima.
She says: “Things kept going against me. I doubted myself and I had to get through those rounds. The year just didn’t go how I wanted.
“It was a crazy year. Rio was so different. It played out so differently. Things happened through that year that hit me hard and I had a struggle to even make Rio.
“I shouldn’t have had the struggle. I was better than people I was losing to during the year. It was almost the last tournament when I got in. There was so much pressure and any time I did something it didn’t seem to go to plan. It happens like that some times. You have to fight through those moments.”
Having had two Olympic experiences in the singles, she bid for an appearance in both for Rio, but double-jobbing expended a lot of her energy.
“I was stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she says.
“We sat down at Christmas with the technical director. Chances were that I wouldn’t make doubles – and he advised to focus on singles. That was a tough decision.
“I was playing with my brother and we were ranked 21 at the time. We were really high. Being 21 in the world was a big thing. I had to made the decision – and he basically made it for me.
“i wasn’t in a good place going to Rio and I did a lot of work with the psychologist beforehand. Mentally, it was really tough. I wasn’t prepared.
“I didn’t foresee not getting into draws in the singles. I was going weeks not getting any points. That’s tough. I was going back when the draws were stacked in January rather than gradually doing it from the previous April.
“I was so relieved to make it. I sort of crashed after that and had to get straight back up again.”
Magee was given a tough draw in Rio to compound the tale and lost out to Wang Yihan (China) and Karin Schnaase (Germany) at the Riocentro.
She says: “Everything came down on top of me and I wasn’t in a great place going to Rio. Rio was a different experience and things weren’t as easy as they were in London is how I’ll put it…It was a difficult experience.”
GROWING up in a family of eight, it was inevitable that Magee would have a competitive edge.
The teeth were cut inside the modest hall in Raphoe and from there a real competitor was born.
The modest and bubbly Magee is, by her own admission, ‘a very different person’ when she crosses onto the court.
“We worked on that,” she says.
“When I get on the court, I just want to win so much. I say things to people that I probably shouldn’t. When you’re on court….it’s not a cockiness, but if you’re not confident you don’t have a chance.
“It’s important to control the aggression. Sometimes, I’ve wanted to win so much I’ve used the wrong emotions. I did a lot of work in learning to control the emotion – in good times and bad.
“Any good athlete or anyone who wants to win in any sport, you have to be a different person when you’re on the pitch or on the court. You are different.
“I saw that in Minsk. People you’re on the same team as, you see them…Sarah Lavin is a good example. When she’s in a race, you don’t speak to her when she’s in that zone in a warm-up and ready to go. Some of the boxers are the same. Michaela Walsh or Kellie Harrington, you can have such a good conversation with them, but on the day of the fight – forget about it! Every good athlete has a switch that puts them in the zone.
“That is something you learn. It’s a part of growing up. I can see now in the badminton academy the ones who thrive on that and the ones who struggle with it. Everyone can work on it and make it better.”
THE bronze medal from the first edition of the European Games in Baku holds weight, but it’s not nearly as valuable a currency as that from Minsk.
“Even though we won the medal, it didn’t feel like a ‘real’ medal, even though it was,” she says.
“People will look from outside the sport and see a European medal, but people inside the sport will be able to point to pairs who weren’t there.”
The Magees won their three group games before defeating Pawel Pietryja and Aneta Wojtkowska from Poland in their quarter final.
Magee says: “It was such a big moment and we had to beat a lot of top pairs to get the medal. It wasn’t a free medal!
“A lot of people played it down and others were saying how good it was. There were two different feelings: Happy to win it, but not totally satisfied.”
Her buzz returned after Rio and she put aside the singles career to concentrate on playing doubles with Sam.
The winning of a European Championship in Kolding, Denmark, three years ago was Ireland’s first European Championship medal in the sport.
“When John Quinn came in as a coach he said we could be among the better pairs in Europe,” she says.
“We targeted the Europeans in Denmark. We knew we were in good form. Things had come together. We were enjoying training just in mixed.
“The draw was quite tough and we expected that, but we felt real confidence inside us. It felt different. It felt good.
“We had a buzz of positivity. That’s one of the best feelings you can have before a tournament. You feel as if you can show your best and there’s nothing else going on. Everything came together.”
As they stood on the podium in the Sydbank Area, the smile widened: “Everything felt right. It was: ‘This has all been worthwhile.’ All the years I had put in and all the sacrifices felt worthwhile.”
TOKYO, she hopes, will act as a swan song of sorts.
The postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games for 12 months allows some refocus. The Magees were outside of the 16 qualification places available for the mixed doubles when Covid-19 shut the world down, but she still hopes to make it to a fourth Olympic Games.
She says: “I can’t say we’ll definitely be there or we’ll definitely not. If things were to stop now, we wouldn’t. We always knew it would be close and we’d be just in or just out and there are only 16 spots for the mixed doubles.
“Sam and myself came away with a European medal and we’re still outside the group for Olympic qualification. It requires a lot of big results. We knew that from the start and we’re still fighting.
“A lot of things can change. We still had three months to go – and that’s a lot of tournaments. Everything can change in one tournament.”
Between Christmas and New Years, the Magees boarded a flight to Malaysia for some high-quality training and the air miles continued to tally, but now they await the next move and the next announcement.
She says: “We were glad of the break in some way. We got to step back and re-evaluate. We were in one of those pressure situations. We were in a lot of tournaments and we were traveling every week.”
SHE made a hard decision after Rio to park her singles career and it wrangled with her for a time.
“I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t enjoying it,” she says.
“I’ve never played badminton for any reason other than I want to be the best I can be.
“I needed a change so I quit singles. It was a hard decision because I knew I didn’t get everything out of my singles career that I should have.”
She’s already thinking of post-Tokyo and has ‘a couple of things on the horizon’, one of which will be an extended break from regular visits to departure lounges.
It’s coming on 13 years now since she boarded the flight to Sweden.
On her arrival, Reidy asked her to write down some short-term and long-term goals.
Among them was qualifying for the Olympics and another was to win a European medal.
She’s had three Olympics and three European medals hang proudly at home.
“At that stage, I had no belief in myself,” she says.
“It’s a tough career, but staying in a comfort zone in Ireland wouldn’t have cut it.”