Interview: Susan Egelstaff - Roundabout route to London

Olympic prospect Susan Egelstaff wouldn‘t be forced into a move to Milton Keynes, she tells Richard Bath

It‘s A sporting nightmare. You're less than a year away from the Olympics on home soil and playing brilliantly. This is extremely handy because you're locked in badminton's version of mortal combat, with you and your English rival neck-and-neck in the race for the one Olympic berth. To make matters worse, you know Team GB would rather the English girl, Liz Cann, made it to London 2012 because they've basically told you as much. And then you go and suffer a freak injury, the first of your career.

“The timing couldn't have been any worse,” says Susan Egelstaff of that day in late September. “It was just a run-of-the-mill tournament, in Brazil of all places, and I just felt this pain in my knee. I had the MRI scan on the Monday, and it showed bone damage, muscle damage and cartilage damage because the thigh bone and the shin bone had been banging against each other. On the Wednesday I had the operation and then I spent four weeks on crutches. I'm just back doing some light hitting and should be playing by Christmas, but every week out is another week for Liz to close the gap.”

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At the time of her injury, Egelstaff had just beaten the Brazil tournament's top two seeds, Ukranian Larisa Griga and Russian Anastasia Prokopenko, and was ranked 31st in the world while her rival, English No.1 Cann, was 36th.

The equation is simple: the player who finishes highest in the rankings in April gets the Olympic gig. At the time of her injury in Sao Paolo, Egelstaff was playing extremely well as badminton entered the intensive period of its season where there would be a ranking tournament virtually every week. Yet now the Scot is ranked 32nd while, thanks to a complicated ranking system based on the ten best results in the past year, Cann has actually dropped to 47th.

This week will be particularly difficult though, because the Scottish Open at Glasgow's Kelvin Hall is traditionally the high point of 29-year-old Egelstaff's year. “I'd have been top seed and would have expected to pick up some ranking points,” she says.

“Last year was like most years in that I reached the semis but the year before that I won the tournament.

“This year I just can't bring myself to go along because I'd just be watching to see how Liz does, and I'm trying not to use up any energy worrying about how her rankings are going. I know she's not setting the heather on fire but it's already all I can do not to check the website every five minutes because that would send me even more mental than I already am!”

Egelstaff says she actually gets on well with Cann on the rare occasions that their paths cross, and adds that it's “nothing personal”. However, few would condemn her were she to take the events of the recent past to heart because it has been made abundantly clear to her that GB Badminton would prefer to have Cann representing them in London next summer. Matters came to a head when Egelstaff was instructed to move to the team headquarters in Milton Keynes, the roundabout capital of Europe, or face losing her funding. At a heated meeting she was told that staying in Scotland would make her uncompetitive but, when she pointed out that she had just beaten the world No.5, she was told that her funding was now dependent upon moving to Milton Keynes and beating a top-four player.

“I definitely feel that the badminton establishment is against me, and they've as good as said that they'd rather Liz went to the Olympics,” says Egelstaff. “But, do you know what, I'm fine with that because, if Badminton Scotland were running the GB set-up then I'd expect them to favour me.

“I don't regret the decision not to move to Milton Keynes, even though it meant a cut in funding, because SportScotland stepped in to help on that front. Anyway, the facilities here are better than in Milton Keynes. As for keeping competitive, I practise against the men and that really seems to be working for me. Besides, there's more to life than badminton. I'm really happy here [in Clarkston] and being happy in life is the key to playing well. If you're miserable you're not going to be focused when you play, and there's a lot of the day when you're not training or playing. Can you imagine me living in a place like Milton Keynes, away from all my friends and family, wondering what to do in the evenings? I'd be a wreck and my badminton would suffer.”

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A talented tennis player as a child, Egelstaff has never regretted throwing herself into badminton. “I have just such a brilliant life, I'm doing something that has been my hobby since the age of nine as a full-time job. I've been in the Scotland team since I was 16, that's 13 amazing years travelling the world playing the game I love, getting experiences I'd never have got elsewhere. And then there's the Olympics and Commonwealth Games to aim at. OK, so I've been injured for the first time, which is a really odd sensation, but, even then, I've been doing eight hours of rehab every day, which keeps me pretty busy.”

An evangelical advocate of badminton and a keen media watcher, Egelstaff says her biggest gripe about sport in Scotland is the fact that her's doesn't get a look-in when it comes to coverage. “Football, and to a lesser extent rugby, swamp everything which would be fine if our football wasn't complete dross. It drives me mad. Any sport other than football has to be crazily successful to buck that trend, as cycling has been sometimes. But badminton has fallen foul of our obsession with football, although I hope the Olympics can begin to change that.”

That process is unlikely to be kick-started by events at Kelvin Hall, though, with Scotland's mixed doubles specialist Imogen Bankier away playing in Hong Kong. In the men's event, the best Scotland has to offer is young Kieran Merrilees, who “needs to stop showing potential and start producing results”. But, says Egelstaff, even if she won't be there herself, it's an event well worth visiting: “Badminton doesn't get the respect it deserves. It's a great tournament – just go and you'll see.”