From Olympian to Dad: The spaces that shaped my journey

Two-time Olympian, Derek Wong, takes a trip down memory lane to revisit the milestones that were monumental in his eight-year sporting career – and in his love life with fellow shuttler and retired national athlete, Vanessa Neo!

  • 18 Mar 2024
Derek collecting a prize at the former Guillemard Badminton Hall, after the Singapore Pilot Pen Cup

Derek collecting a prize at the former Guillemard Badminton Hall, after the Singapore Pilot Pen Cup.

If you grew up in Singapore, you probably have played a game of badminton at one point or another. While it’s likely that anyone can hit a shuttlecock across a net, it is entirely something else to have twice-represented Singapore in the Olympics. And then there is Derek Wong.

It might be difficult to find another individual whose personal life was more deeply intertwined with the sport. The 35-year-old is one of four boys born to two national badminton champions, Wong Shoon Keat and Irene Lee.

At five, he picked up his first racquet; at 17, he went professional. Most would agree that Derek’s silver placing in the 2014 Commonwealth Games was the highlight of his eight-year career. But the retired national athlete would say meeting his wife – also an ex-national shuttler – on the court was the most significant moment.

Through Derek’s eyes, here's a look at how Singapore's badminton facilities and sporting landscape have changed over the better part of three decades.

What picking up badminton looked like in the past

Derek and his family at the Former Singapore Badminton Hall

Derek and his family at the Former Singapore Badminton Hall.

Growing up, Derek spent his childhood at the Former Singapore Badminton Hall. His parents owned a badminton shop at the 100 Guillemard Road site

Derek’s Grandmother at their store stringing rackets

Derek’s Grandmother at their store stringing rackets.

Unlike parents who prioritised academics, the former national shuttlers nurtured a love of the sport in their children. Their encouragement bore fruit; aside from Derek, their youngest son, Jason Wong, is also a national shuttler.

"As kids, my brothers and I would run around the hall. I think I spent most of my time in that shop, and the rest I spent in school. After completing my school work, I would go play badminton with the 'aunties' and 'uncles'.”

Besides the Former Badminton Sports Hall, Derek also played at the Hougang and Bishan Sports Halls near his home.

“Back in the day, you could walk up to people and ask, ‘Can I join you for a game or two?’ Sometimes, my dad would coach and spar with me whenever he’s not busy. But when I had no one to play with, I would drag my grandma down for a round.”

Courts and courtship: Memories of the Former Singapore Badminton Hall

Former Singapore Badminton Hall

Former Singapore Badminton Hall, Image Credit: National Library Board Singapore.

The original Singapore Badminton Hall was built in 1952.
"In my mind, I can see the steps and railings and the small canteen I used to buy snacks and drinks in. The courts had the now-outdated parquet flooring which were slippery when they got dusty or wet.

At the back of the hall, there was a simple gym the national team used. If you exit the backdoor, there was an old-school fitness corner with pull-up bars and sit-up benches. Also, there was no air-conditioning."

Derek and family posing alongside Mr. Wong Shoon Keat

Derek and family posing alongside Mr. Wong Shoon Keat (Derek's father) and his students, after a competition at the former Singapore Badminton Hall].

Still, the ageing badminton hall maintained a special place in his heart. It was a cosy space he made many fond memories and where he met his wife, Vanessa Neo.

"She trained for doubles and I was training for singles. We would go to the nearby Old Airport Road Food Centre and the coffeeshop near Block 34 for lunch together. But the first time I confessed to her, she rejected me!"

However, Derek continued pursuing Vanessa. Many bowls of wanton mee and plates of 'cai fan' later, love blossomed. The pair began dating in 2007 and got married in 2015.

"Our relationship grew because we were in the same sport. So, it was easier to talk to each other. When we win or lose, we can talk about our feelings about the matches and find ways to improve and become better players.”

New and improved training grounds

Derek and Vanessa at the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea

Derek and Vanessa (second from right) at the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea.

In 2008, the Former Badminton Sports Hall was officially closed. The national squad sessions were moved to the Singapore Sports School the following year. Though Derek experienced a nostalgic longing for his old training grounds, the new practice courts were a step up.

"I made a lot of friends at the Singapore Sports School. The courts and lighting were better than at Guillemard Road. We also had the professional-grade badminton floor mats, the green kind that isn’t as easy to slide on. The space was bigger and cleaner, definitely not as old."

Training as a national athlete usually took place twice daily, six days a week. In the last couple of years leading up to the Rio 2016 Olympics, Derek trained in the OCBC Arena at the Singapore Sports Hub.

Prior to the Singapore Sports Hub being renovated, he would run along the stadium’s waterlogged tracks to East Coast Park. Now, the 100Plus Promenade is an 888m sheltered indoor track that athletes and the general public can enjoy.

The future of Singapore’s badminton scene

After Singapore gained independence, badminton fever hit when Derek’s father secured a gold medal in the Men's Singles Individual event at the 1983 SEA Games. Since then, there have been several peaks, with the most recent notable being Loh Kean Yew winning the men's singles world champion in 2021. During the COVID-19 pandemic, badminton saw a renewed interest which has persisted.

To further encourage this enthusiasm in young people to pick up the sport and identify future athletes, the Singapore Badminton Association (SBA) have set up a badminton promotion centre at the Guillemard hall which is set to open in H2 2024.

One Badminton Promotion Centre initiative is the Young Shuttlers Programme. The goal is to have 5,000 primary school-going children be introduced to the sport and give them access to badminton should their schools not offer it as a CCA.

Derek agrees that the ideas from SBA are a step in the right direction. “By sponsoring and nurturing talents who traditionally cannot afford to play badminton, we are giving more individuals access to the sport.”

Derek coaching his daughter on how to hold the racquet, during their family exercise time

Derek coaching his daughter on how to hold the racquet, during their family exercise time.

“Compared to the past, receiving sports training at academies and pursuing badminton as a career is a lot more accessible. Facilities are much better too; there are more courts with badminton mats.”

When asked what advice he would give to young aspiring players, he has these tips to offer:

- Train often: "If you were to just train once a week, the improvement will be there but it will take a long time to get better."
- Train anywhere: "If you can find a spot, pick up a racket outside of training; play with your friends and family."
- Train with different programmes: "Some schools offer badminton as a CCA and offer their own school training. This will help them to improve more."