By Martin Cleary
From the first moment they spoke on the phone, it was evident Dani Roth and Katie Fong were blessed with synchronization.
When the interviewer introduced himself and said hello, the St. Peter Catholic High School Grade 12 student/athletes responded with the exact same greeting phrase, at the exact same time and with the exact same tone. Two voices became one.
Now, that’s a doubles team.
That unison and togetherness was recently evident on the badminton court, when Roth and Fong, who are both 17, played as one dominant team to capture the Division A girls’ doubles title during the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations’ badminton championships in Pain Court.
In their first and only provincial high school championship, they won their first two games on Day 1 and posted three straight victories on Day 2 to win the National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association’s only gold medal.
In the other draws, Ashbury’s Jenny Liao earned the Division A girls’ open singles bronze medal, while Franco-Cité’s Jacob Beauchamp and Kayana Kama won the Division B mixed doubles bronze.
While Roth and Fong have played together at the community competitive level for four years with the R.A. Badminton Club, they had to wait until their final high school year to qualify for the OFSAA championships.
As Grade 9 students, they attended different high schools – Roth at Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Fong at St. Peter. Roth transferred to St. Peter because it was closer to her residence, but the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 and 2021 badminton seasons.
That only left the 2022 season for Roth and Fong to play together and see how far they could progress. They took full advantage of that opportunity by winning the NCSSAA girls’ doubles title in three straight games and then excelled at OFSAA, where they won their first four games without allowing their opponents more than 10 points in the eight sets.
“It was extremely exciting,” Fong said about winning the OFSAA gold in their championship debut as seniors. “It was the highlight of my whole high school career because we had to wait so long. We weren’t at the same school and then there was COVID.
“We were very excited to No. 1 to win the (NCSSAA) East Division and city championship, and No. 2 to go to OFSAA. We were over the moon. It was a surreal experience (to go to OFSAA and to win gold).”
When Roth was asked her reaction to being an OFSAA champion, it sounded like the start of the interview: “Katie said it very well.”
Teammates sharing the same comments.
After defeating Brooke Yang and Holly Hunt of the Golden Horseshoe Athletic Association in the quarterfinals and Davina Cao and Changjia Li of the Toronto District Secondary Schools Athletic Association in the semifinals, Roth and Fong faced their most challenging match in the final.
Roth and Fong had a strong start to the best-of-three final, winning the opening set 21-13 over Kate Dong and Zoe Ng of the York Region Athletic Association.
But in the second set, the St. Peter Knights players trailed 11-7 and 16-10 in the middle of the match. Roth and Fong quickly developed a strategy – extend the rallies to wear down their opponents. Their plan worked well as they rallied to win 12 of the last 16 points, take the second set and earn the championship 22-20.
“We rallied more and they became more tired,” Roth explained. “They had more to lose (being down one set). If we lost, we had already won a set.”
St. Peter teacher/coach Lisa Nanavati-Fong watched her student-athletes compete from the sidelines and was doubly choked up. Not only was she proud of the overall performance of Roth and Fong, but also there was a special family connection. Katie Fong is the daughter of Nanavati-Fong and Roth is also considered ‘a daughter’ as Fong’s best friend.
The OFSAA family affair was stressful on Nanavati-Fong, but celebratory in the end.
“It was an extra special opportunity to be family,” she said during the phone interview. “I’m very proud of them for their positive attitudes. They were great ambassadors for the school.”
Roth and Fong have had badminton in their blood for a long time. Both sets of parents have played the game at different levels and thought it would be a good sport for their daughters. Four years ago, Fong was asked by a coach to warm-up with Roth.
“We became friends and have been playing together ever since,” Fong said.
“We were the only girls the same age. It was helpful. We just clicked,” Roth added.
When Nanavati-Fong watches Roth and Fong practise and compete, which will happen again at this weekend’s Canadian junior championships in Toronto, she knows why they have been successful.
“They are very committed. In terms of training, they are very diligent. When COVID hit, there were no Ontario tournaments and they were willing to go to Quebec City. We drove all over the place,” she said.
“They had a real personal connection. They had chemistry off the court and transferred it onto the court. They never disagreed. They have friendship, skills and training.”
As a team, Roth and Fong like to attack and feel their physical strength is an advantage over their opponents. They can play long matches and communicate well.
“We never get mad at each other, but we’ll get mad at ourselves for messing up a point,” Roth explained.
“We tend to think alike,” Fong added. “If we see a problem, we’ll fix it.”
Roth and Fong, who are sponsored by sporting goods store Oliver Sports, will have a few domestic tournaments over the next three months before they start their university educations in different countries.
Roth will attend the University of Ottawa to study health sciences, while Fong will travel to Nottingham, England, to study biology at Nottingham Trent University.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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