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In the Slums of Rio, Badminton is Making a Difference

Favela Da Chacrinha, Brazil offers a safe place for children to play and learn. It’s badminton that helps the kids stay out of trouble.

During the World Cup Soccer, Brazil was showcased around the world. Many people got to see the beautiful beach of Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, but I am sure not many have ever heard about this amazing project in the favelas tucked in the shantytown hillside – the Miratus Project is in full swing.

Sebastio Coelho de Oliveirs is the man behind this project that offers children from his Rio ghetto an opportunity for change and to learn through sport. In the Favela Da Chacrinha there are over 15000, people living on this hillside. It is one of about 900 poverty ridden, dangerous and often drug lord controlled favelas. Sebastio lived in a reformatory from the age of 7 to 18 and has seen many problems and wanted to make a social program to help the children.

Sebastio's dream was to build a badminton center that helps children stay off the streets and lets them have fun and helps prepare them to enter society with skills and hope, that is the Miratus Project. Sebastio’s vision is to have a place where children can study and learn both on and off the courts. These children are part of a team, like a big family, that cares for each other and you can see the positive benefit of the project.

Over the years I have been fortunate to know Sebastio. It’s exciting to see his dreams become reality. Seven years ago, after I competed in the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio, I visited Sebastio in the favelas, I wanted to see firsthand his badminton courts and get a chance to help and play with his kids; it was so moving to see what badminton can do. This is one of my most memorable moments in my badminton career.

This past weekend my doubles partner, Nicole Grether, and I went to see the project and to play with the children after we competed in the Brazil Grand Prix. Again, it was amazing to see all of the kids and the progress Sebastio has made over the years, with more than 150 playing weekly, the level has greatly improved. On my first visit to Sebastio’s home there was only one court with concrete walls and a roof, the other 3 courts looked like an airplane hangar with just a roof with no walls and the concrete was rough to play on. Now it’s incredible, the center that he started building in 1998 was built by hand one bag of cement at a time is now a fantastic facility which has four courts with blue walls, smooth green concrete floors, a weight room and washrooms. Currently, they are in the middle of building a big new kitchen. The Coelho’s living quarters are attached to the courts just up the stairs where Mrs. Coelho looks after her mother with Sebastio and their 2 sons, Ygor, 17 and Donnians, 14, who both are very good players and are on the badminton courts hours a day.

Playing in shoes, flip flops or even barefoot these kids love it. It’s impressive, as you know they will never give up on court. You could see the determination in Pedro Vinicius, a 9 year old boy playing against Nicole, he was barefoot, running corner to corner, with great shots and an even a bigger smile. We talked with Pedro through an interpreter and he tells us he plays here every day after school, he misses the morning session because he has to look after his 8 month old brother when his mother goes to work. There are many stories like this here and you can see how important this project is for them.

Although Sebastio’s intention was to integrate the children into society with skills and hope and not focus on badminton champions, with his dedication and coaching he actually has many Brazilian badminton champions from this favela. Three women badminton players have made it to the National Training Center with one medalling at the 2011 Pan American Games. His son, Ygor, was also invited to join the National Training Center but decided to keep training at the Maritus Project as he finds it best for him. He also wants to help the upcoming kids in the project.

We played some doubles matches with Ygor, he’s a very strong player, he’s fast, talented and determined. It was very touching when Ygor said he remembers me from when I visited his home in 2007. I talked to the children about my Olympic experience, setting goals and striving for them. Ygor was only ten at the time when I asked the group if any of them had dreams, Ygor said “I want to play in the Olympics and the World Championship. I know that the Pan Am Games are on the way to the Olympics and I am already working so hard, my feet are hurting”. Now, Ygor’s hard training is paying off, he qualified for the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing and is headed there this week. It’s so exciting that he is going to China to play in these Games, I am so happy for him.

Badminton is a fairly inexpensive sport to play, you only need a racquet, net, and a shuttlecock and you can play almost anywhere. The shuttle can be clocked at over 300mph, players leap through the air with power, speed, flexibility and agility. It’s a sport that keeps you fit and is fun to play at any age.

Nicole and I were so thrilled that we could visit the Maritus Project, we left behind an Adidas racquet, shuttles and so many smiles. This was by far better than a trip to the beach and I can’t wait to follow their results and to visit with them again.