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Last year’s Beijing Olympics gave Americans a peek into China and its sports obsessions. And while many Americans can probably appreciate the intensity of competitive ping-pong (perhaps China’s greatest sports mania), badminton remains little known in the United States beyond its lazy-weekend incarnation. One of the fastest, most athletic, and most popular sports in the world is a mystery to many Americans. But somehow, it has caught fire here in Miami. Miami-Dade is the only county in the southeastern United States with high school varsity badminton. There’s a professional training facility here and an annual tournament, one of only two nationwide, that attracts top athletes from around the world.

“It’s a really close community here,” says Weiyi Chen, a perky 26-year-old whose ready smile belies her ferocious on-court skills. “Everyone is really tight because there are so few of us.” Fingering her silver necklace’s pendant of crossed badminton rackets and a shuttlecock, Chen remembers how she first tried badminton in high school as a way to get out of gym class. Later, she was president of a badminton club at the University of Florida. The team competed with clubs at area schools such as Florida State University and the University of Central Florida. Miami transplants were running those clubs, too, Chen says.

Sweaty and tired from a match, Danny Chavez, 48, explains his love of the game as a fairly simple equation. “It’s a lot of ¬running. The more I run, the better I feel when I get home,” he says. “It’s just fun. There is no bad sportsmanship.”

Dick Clough, 76, plays twice a week at Shula’s. He first tried his hand at badminton a few years ago during a sports tournament for seniors in North Carolina. While the first few matches were unsurprisingly lopsided -- “We got our clocks cleaned,” he says -- Clough has only one regret. “I’m sorry I didn’t find out about it earlier in life,” he says. “I’m having a good time.”

Like Clough, many of the players at Shula’s tell stories of accidental exposure to ¬badminton -- getting pulled into the sport by a friend or giving in to curiosity -- that then led to a passion for the sport. Some of them drive up to an hour to be here, and they do it two or three times a week. They’ll be here in November when these courts host some of the world’s best professional badminton players.