Field Watch

Interview: For doubles stars Pedersen-Juhl, success on court comes before their relationship

They eat, sleep, practice, play and win together. Meet Christinna and Kamilla – a couple that’s sweet, successful and inspiring.

The headlines in Danish badminton, over the last two years, have been mostly of Viktor Axelsen. With the precociously talented Viktor a.k.a. The Great Dane (nicknamed aptly by the international media) it was just a question of when, and not if, he’d reach the pinnacle of the world badminton rankings. That inevitability occured last September.

If this was the headline of last year, there was, a few days later, another story – one that’s sweet, successful and inspiring – of two of Viktor’s compatriots - Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl.

The success of Christinna and Kamilla in women’s doubles is already known and hasn’t been matched ever in all of Europe. They became the only Europeans to feature in the women’s doubles final of the Olympics and won silver in Rio. This apart, there are medals and titles that are testimony to their brilliant partnership on court.

But what endeared them to the badminton followers over the world (well, at least to most of them) in October was their announcement that they’d achieved all this being in a relationship since 2009.

Of course, homosexuality isn’t a big deal in a country as liberal as Denmark. The pair, in fact, told their families and friends without a long wait after revealing their love for each other. But for eight years, they chose to keep their relationship under wraps from the international media: not only because of the apprehension of a backlash, but also because of the ambition to accomplish, so that they are identified with success and not with their relationship off court.

They eat, sleep, practice, play and win together. But to find them together during the Premier Badminton League isn’t very easy, as they play for different teams: Kamilla for Ahmedabad Smash Masters and Christinna for Awadhe Warriors.

The Field caught up with them together, to speak about their on-court and off-court partnership.

Excerpts:-

Tell us your story. How did you guys first meet, get together...

Christinna: It started in 2009 when we got into this relationship. We knew we had feelings for each other. We then decided to tell our parents and close friends that we are together... Actually that’s it. Then we started writing the book. Everyone in Denmark knew we were together. Then, the international media also knew about it. So, it’s now okay to talk about that we are together off court as well.

Do you remember the first time you guys met?

Kamilla: No. Actually not. We were both at the national training centre. That’s where it started. We practiced together everyday. It was not like love at first sight or anything (smiles). It was something that came very slowly.

What do you like and dislike about each other?

Christinna: What I like about Kamilla and like a lot is that she’s calm. When we are practicing, when we are playing tournaments in the beginning, I wasn’t feeling as calm as Kamilla did. I learnt that from her. Especially on court.

And do you have any sort of dislikes…

Christinna and Kamilla: No, not at all.

And, what about you, Kamilla? What do you like about her?

Kamilla: I like a lot of things about Christinna. She has made me believe in myself. She’s good in believing in herself. So, I think we are a good combination on and off court. We are really strong together.

You guys have said before that people have received your relationship in a positive manner. But there have been negative comments as well. How do you react to those comments?

Kamilla: It’s not like we are counting how many negative comments we get. But it’s like if we get maybe 100 positive, we get one or two negative. So… we are handling our social media. We are keeping an eye on what’s going on. Are people too negative, what’s the reaction when we post something. Of course, there are people who don’t like this kind of relationship. That’s okay for us. As long as we have so many positives. It’s not like we are acting on the negative comments. We haven’t felt anyone being aggressive towards us or anything like that. Again, it’s just a few comments on social media. And, on social media, you can do anything you want. In real life, we didn’t have anyone saying negative things to us…

So, what goes through in your mind when you travel to a country like India, where homosexuality is criminalised?

Christinna: We told ourselves in October [2017] when the international media got the news and before we left for our first tournament after that in China and Hong Kong that “We have to wait and see what will happen. Will there be any reaction now?” We did the same before coming here to India. And, nothing negative has been here. We are really pleased that everyone has been really kind and friendly to us. Even though we are a couple off court, one thing that’s been really important to show was: we are still the same people before you knew about our relationship. I am still Christinna and this is still Kamilla. Nothing has changed.

You’re in the same career, same sport. Is that a positive or a negative? Because one of you might want to discuss the sport all the time but the other wouldn’t want that…

Kamilla: Normally when people ask us, how much time we spend together, we say, “24 hours a day”. Of course, we are a lot together. We talk a lot about badminton. It’s our sport, we love our sport, we are talking a lot about it. But it’s not like after we go home, we analyse what was good, what was bad, and what to do tomorrow…

Christinna: Sometimes I analyse if Kamilla has made too many errors (both laugh).

Kamilla: Luckily for me it’s not everyday. So… But of course, we talk a lot about badminton. We are good at doing other things that take our minds away from the court. And, I think that’s a positive.

Has there been instances when personal problems affected your on-court performances?

Kamilla: We have been playing together for eight years. And, of course, there can be conflicts during a tournament in that time. But there hasn’t been many…

Christinna: I can’t even think of a specific instance like that.

Kamilla: Yeah, I don’t think we have lost a match because of that. We know that when we step on court, we have to stick together. If we don’t do that, we don’t have a chance. It’s the same every morning. When we go to practice in Copenhagen, we practice together with the boys. But when we step on to the court, we know we have to stick together. If we don’t, then the boys will kick our a**es. And we know we have to play only one hour, one and a half hours, and we can stick together.

And, being in a relationship might help understand each other’s games well.

Christinna: I am sure that’s the reason why our relationship has been this good. It’s because we know each other well. And as Kamilla said, when on court, we always want to win together. I am 100% sure that’s our secret weapon for our good results. It’s also, you can say, the love for each other.

Kamilla: Actually, it’s simple. Everytime we step on court,we tell each other that we have to do everything that’s possible to win this match. We don’t want to look back and say ‘I could have done 10 percent more’. It doesn’t work. You can’t win matches like that. I think that’s why we could keep up our level after the Olympics. Normally when players make a big result, they go a little bit down. We didn’t want that and we told ourselves that. It’s not like we are going to Korea or Japan and all other tournaments. It’s not like someone is forcing us to go there. It’s our own decision.

Kamilla and Christinna with their silver medals in the Rio Olympics. -AFP
Kamilla and Christinna with their silver medals in the Rio Olympics. -AFP

What do you guys do when you aren’t practicing or playing badminton?

Christinna: We travel for a lot of tournaments, visiting a lot of countries. When we aren’t playing badminton we like to go back to our families, we love to visit them. We’d like to go watch a movie in the cinemas. Go into the city and have a cafe latte. Just casual things. And we hang out with our really good friends.

How difficult was it to keep your relationship under the wraps since 2009?

Kamilla: It’s not something that we used so much energy on. Fellow players, our coaches and friends knew it. A lot of European players knew about it. So, when a journalist came and said “We have to make a quiz; how well do you know her?” and I was like “I know her pretty well”.

Does it bother you sometimes that the talking point, when it comes to you both, becomes about your sexuality than your game?

Christinna: No. The reason why we kept it with ourselves until now is because we wanted to show everybody that we are good at playing badminton than just being famous for being together off court.

How’s the following of badminton back home?

Kamilla: Badminton is getting more and more popular in Denmark. It’s of course because of Viktor. He’s doing a really great job. Carsten (Mogensten) and Boe Mathias in the men’s doubles are also doing a good job. When they are not winning tournaments, we are doing well. So, there’s always one or two combinations doing quite well. So that’s affecting the media. They are liking badminton more and more. And, it’s coming more in television as well. So, that’s a positive thing and we just have to keep it going.

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