The beautiful, indestructible mind of an Olympic contender

Carolina Marin has such unflinching belief in how she's destined to shine at the Olympics, that she will find a way to show up at Paris and crash a few dreams. (PHOTOS: Carolina Marin Instagram)

The visible ingredients of Carolina Marin’s success are often unpalatable to many badminton watchers. She screams and shouts. She rushes the serve. She delays the serve. At other times, she saunters off to towel herself dry of the sweat from her considerable hard work.

There is a yell-mode that pierces genteel silences of badminton courts. There isn’t an obvious zen-mode, like the Far East Asian players or deep-breath aggression of Saina Nehwal, that will stick to decorum and still win matches – though none has peeked into her brain where stillness and clarity might well be reigning, with her expressive face just a decoy.

She doesn’t bow like Intanon Ratchanok or Nozomi Okuhara, or keep a lid on her emotions like Chen Yufei or Tai Tzu Ying. Her attacking stomping doesn’t disarm like Akane Yamaguchi, though both can light up entire arenas with their winning grins once the storm of a match has subsided. And yes, her hairpins get disheveled conveniently when a breather is needed. Also, she keeps beating PV Sindhu after working up quite the fury, so that’s a billion grumps each time that happens.

There’s a hundred reasons to dislike Marin’s disposition on court, but you won’t find a badminton lover, who can’t help grudgingly respect her. That will be 100 people out of 100, with or without her heroic struggles with injury and the gladiatorial comebacks of the last few years. They will stand in unison should she get a highly unlikely gold medal at Paris, but even if she simply makes the podium. Spain hasn’t seen another like her yet, so she’s a glorious one-off, a dazzling comet, with a blazing aura tailing her.

The greatness of course started 10 years ago at the 2014 World Championships. It’s when Marin cleaned up Yihan Wang, Tai Tzu Ying, PV Sindhu and Xuerui Li to claim her first world title. That was literally creaming of the past, present and future of badminton greatness, at age 21. Marin truly feared Nehwal’s grit, her coach Fernando Rivas has said often, and though she handed out thrashings to the Indian to deny her the All England and World Championship in 2015, she mostly used the presence of this indomitable fighter to prop up and finetune her own game. By 2016, Marin was Olympic champion, and in 2018 she had her third world title.

Festive offer

Sure, Marin was backed by the incredibly advanced sports science of Spain. And had a wizard of a coach in Rivas. But it’s between her two All Englands – in 2015 and 2024, that the story of Caro, The Courageous, can be penned.

In this file photo, PV Sindhu embraces Carolina Marin after a match. (Source: AP) In this file photo, PV Sindhu embraces Carolina Marin after a match. (Source: AP)

Because she’s so incredibly noisy and bustling on court, little attention tends to be given to her precision and technical prowess on court. The smashes are lethal alright and she operates on power and strength for her kills, there’s no nuancing that. But her footwork is underrated, because of her speed and anticipation. The pace is down a few clicks. But despite two ACL horror injuries, she’s simply not grown shy of her iconic lunge.

Her tight net dribbles and just the control she brings on that backhand pop of the shuttle, before she snaps the rhythm with a flick or a scythe, are 10000 hours of practice. Her body defense doesn’t flag and the agility has been silently honed. The deception lacks the regality of Ratchanok or Tai Tzu Ying, or the cleverness of Se-Young that will make people hop the hype trains, or settle into sighing cults. But the wrist-work is a huge chunk of how she sets up points, her brain whizzing, affording her cerebral trap-laying that’s never talked of much.

The left-handedness bestows her with disorienting angles, but truly there’s not many on the circuit who hit along alternate flanks and yo-yo opponents left and right, like Marin does. She’s put in hours to maintain the fizz on her down the line smash. Where she will get caught out repeatedly, is if she over-commits at the net with her blazing confidence of being able to finish the point there, but runs into equally strong willed opponents. Yamaguchi, Tzu Ying and Se Young are far sharper on the net-flicks and eyeball confrontations, and Marin’s own lateral or diagonal running if stuck at the corner is considerably sheared down.

But she has the indestructible mind. And she works doubly hard on her fitness so that the lunge isn’t tentative or sedated by fears of older injuries.

She skipped her home World Championships in 2021 held in an arena named after her, not even visiting the Huelva stadium for a felicitation in 2021, because she wasn’t confident of that knee being strong enough to lunge, and couldn’t bear the thought of being around badminton but not competing.

She lost her father to illness, spent months rehabbing in the shadow of spotlights after surgery, and even lost the World Championships final in 2023 to everyone’s favourite, the young and near-perfect An Se Young. But Marin is back in 2024, looking extremely formidable. Such is the quality of women’s badminton in the last decade that a presiding Fab Four doesn’t include the furious Marin, owing to her long absences due to injury. She turns 31 this June, but no country will start their planning for Paris, omitting that red-blazing threat.

It helps that Spain won’t bother with the Uber Cup. Though Marin has navigated the tricky times when coach Fernando Rivas was away, collecting another PhD or propping up badminton systems of France, or just letting her get on with thinking for herself on court. She’s a literal outlier, given there’s no precedent to her on the Spanish landscape, and no visible heir either. A bright coach spotted skills and a vaguely indefatigable mind two decades ago, and steered her towards badminton and the Rio gold. But there’s been months and months of patiently watching her feet heal and regaining strength in her game, which she’s pulled off on her own. Alone.

Carolina Marin isn’t unbeatable – but she never was, even in her prime. It’s just that she has such unflinching belief in how she’s destined to shine at the Olympics, that she will find a way to show up at Paris and crash a few dreams. And like always, the moshpit yelling will mask the enduring greatness of a highly technical game that can range from Beethoven to Black Sabbath, span from Britney to Beyonce. The world can keep muttering about the din, but it can’t ignore the dazzle.

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