Badminton ranks no higher than fourth on the laundry list of things Lyons Township High School junior Stephanie Lin is good at.
Which is pretty remarkable considering Lin is the reigning state singles champion.
Yet academics, piano and horseback riding are all bigger priorities for Lin, who was excelling at all three long before she first tried badminton in the summer before her freshman year.
“I’d say piano [is her strongest suit],” Lin said. “Since I’ve done it so long it is probably the most ingrained talent I have, but I feel like for badminton I learn pretty quickly, so I enjoy it.”
Lin, 16, has been playing the piano for 11 years and is an accomplished player of classical composers like Bach and Chopin. She recently passed Level 11 on the Illinois Music Exam, one rung from the top.
In addition, Lin has been riding horses since she was in first grade and competes in equestrian and dressage. She does all of this while taking a full slate of Advanced Placement courses and in December scored a perfect 36 on the ACT.
“She’s very special,” LTHS badminton coach Sue McClenahan said. “Some of [her drive] is brought on by her parents but a lot of it is brought on by herself to stay busy and keep studying for the next thing. She’s very well-disciplined.”
Like many children of Asian descent, Lin comes from a family that prizes academic achievement. Her parents, Derek and Christien, emigrated from Taiwan to Vancouver, where Stephanie, an only child, was born. They moved here when she was 4.
“Academically I think their expectations are so high that so long as I meet them they’re happy,” Lin said. “They definitely understand that high school is very stressful and I think my dad’s a very sporty person so he’s glad that I took on a sport.
“They’re very supportive. I think they were partially surprised that their pretty laid-back daughter can do some cool stuff.”
It was Lin’s mother who first encouraged her to try badminton, though not as a way to be cool.
“It’s really ironic because my mom was really tired of me being inactive so she told me to run for myself instead of letting the horse run for me,” Lin said. “She told me to get off my butt. That was really funny.
“She wants me to stop now because I play so much. She used to have to threaten me, ‘oh, if you don’t go play badminton you won’t be able to go riding next week.’ Now it’s, ‘if you go to badminton I won’t let you go riding this week.'”
While Lin is not the most natural of athletes, she is physically strong and mentally quick. She brought her thirst to excel to the badminton court and her rise has been remarkable.
Lin had been enjoying a solid season last spring and entered the state tournament with a 5-8 seed just hoping to qualify for the second day.
But she stunned everyone by becoming the first singles state medalist in school history when she upset top-seeded and previously unbeaten Hinsdale Central senior Ailynna Chen 21-17, 21-11 in the quarterfinals.
Lin followed that by knocking out 3-4 seed Jessica Gomez of T.F. South 21-17, 23-21 in the semifinals before avenging two prior defeats to Hinsdale South senior Emma Adcock with a 16-21, 21-16, 21-17 victory in the title match to finish with a 34-7 record.
How does she explain her quick rise?
“I think it’s a lot of underdog mentality,” Lin said. “Last year I came into it just trying to get to the second day of state, so there was a lack of pressure. So I’m trying to emulate that again, knowing that now it’s just a mental game.”
It’s the mental aspect that is proving to be the hardest for Lin. She is currently 29-1, with her only loss coming to Gomez, but has had trouble adjusting to the fact that she is the favorite.
“I think she tries not to focus on that,” McClenahan said. “We don’t really talk about it a lot. She’s had some difficulty in going forward mentally.
“Mentally this is very stressful for her and a lot of it is brought on by herself. It’s not necessarily anything that I’ve done or her parents have done, but hearing what other players are saying, I think she just internalized that.”
Only seven players have won back-to-back state titles in the 37-year history of the state finals, so McClenahan has tried to put Lin at ease.
“We said, ‘if you do it again that would be great, but if you don’t we want you to have fun,'” McClenahan said. “This is high school badminton. Where do you go from here? It’s very rare that people would continue playing outside of high school.”
Lin said defending her title is both pressure and fun.
“I’m definitely feeling the pressure but my teammates and especially my coach, they’re always there for me and they are helping me with the tension,” Lin said. “I try to think about just doing my best and trying hard. That’s been difficult at times but I feel like so long as I give my best effort, I already have a medal. I’m good.”
She’s more than good. As much as Lin tries to relax, she can’t help but bring the focus and passion that has served her well in the classroom to the court.
“She still is not the most athletic person, but she has worked very hard to become more athletic,” McClenahan said. “She’s become much more speedy in her footwork, but her shot selection is unbelievable and it’s probably because she’s so gifted academically. She can study an opponent and analyze and play that chess match, figure out whether they play a power game or a touch game.
“And her ability to place the bird is phenomenal. She probably will tell you she needs to work on her control, but she can nail it. You put an X on the floor and she can put the bird there, probably just about anywhere.”
For all the stress Lin sometimes feels, she said badminton provides her an outlet that her other pursuits cannot.
“My family definitely focuses on academics first, so when it gets overwhelming badminton is [where] you can hit something to let your anger out,” Lin said.
That Lin is doing it in an LTHS uniform brings joy to McClenahan.
“She’s phenomenal,” McClenahan said. “I’ve been coaching since 2007 so some people who are more veteran than I am have probably seen players like Stephanie come around, but it’s a once-in-a-coaching-career, maybe, opportunity that I had. So we’re very lucky.”