Getting to know the Full Evans: Ireland's badminton star on Rio and staying true to his dream

Newstalk.com speaks to Irish Olympian Scott Evans about making history at the Rio Games

Scott Evans

Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan 

Scott Evans left the court at the Riocentro just over two weeks ago knowing he gave everything he could.

He had just been beaten by Dane Viktor Axelsen in the last 16 of men's singles badminton competition and as per tradition he removed his shirt to pay respect to the enormous support who had turned out to see him.

Unlike against Brazilian Ygor Coelho De Oliveira in his second group game, the noise in the crowd were mostly coming from the Irish hockey team. The guys in turn took off their shirts - or as it is now popularly referred to as going #FullEvans - to salute the Dubliner for his truly historic display in the Brazilian capital. 

The 28-year-old became the first Irishman to win a badminton game at the Olympic Games and did so with gusto against number 14 seed Marc Zweibler of Germany. He then disposed of Oliveira in three sets to book his place in the last 16 of the competition, uncharted territory despite this being his third Olympics.

Evans explains that much of the difference came down to his fitness and the preparation that came as a result of the weeks previous. 

"Absolutely, no question about it," he tells Newstalk.com. "I focused a lot on my physical condition going into all three Olympics, but the knowledge that I’ve gained in the two before I was really able to put that into my planning up to Rio.

"I was actually doing biking sessions every second day for about four weeks. I mean physically not only can you gain from that but mentally, that’s just a huge boost."

This fitness allowed him to push past the limits that had restricted him in 2008 and 2012, but also the experience of these Games stood to his ability to stay in control mentally.

"Being behind against Marc Zwiebler in the first game and losing the first 21-9 and then I’m losing 12-6 in the second. I was saying to myself 'C’mon, I don’t feel like I’m using any of the effort that I’ve put in to get here'.

"I knew that I was in better shape than Marc, even though Marc's famous in badminton for the type of game he plays. He’s a rally player, he always plays long matches. It’s very difficult to beat Marc and all the players know that. That’s why I knew, even though I didn’t know the draw beforehand, no matter what happens with my game, so long as I’m in good shape I can make things work.

"Even the experience from 2008 and 2012, that helped in my run up to Rio. That benefited me just incredibly. I mean I would put it all down to the fact that physically I felt so good, which was mentally a huge boost."

Evans' aggression ultimately paid dividends and he captured the match 9-21, 21-17, 21-7. This left him with an excellent chance of progressing to the last 16 of the competition.

"A great thing they did at the Olympics was record everyone’s match and then give it to them on a memory stick after the game. I got my match on the way home and I think I’ve watched it about 25 or 30 times trying to find a specific moment when everything in the game just changed.

"I couldn’t find one specific moment, but it was around the time I was losing 11-7 and we play a very long, physical rally. I end up losing the rally and the next rally is very long again. Marc ends up making a really basic mistake where he hits the shuttle into the bottom of the net. Something I didn’t realise during the game but as I look at the video I can see he turns around to his coaches and he’s so frustrated. That’s the huge turning point in the game because I’m 12-7 down and I end up winning the second 21-17.

"A player of Marc’s calibre and the type of player that he is, it’s not often that that happens. I put that down to not only as a mental thing, but physically because I was able to go longer than he is."

Facing Oliveira

"Both of the games in the group were two different games for totally different reasons. Mark is a really good player and you really have to play well to beat him and it was something I had never done before.

"Coming into the second game, I knew I could beat this guy. He’s not even close to my level. I’m not saying that it would be easy but this shouldn’t be a problem and I’m going to put myself in the last 16.

"When I walked into the hall, the crowd was absolutely insane. The stands on three of the sides in the badminton hall was just full of Brazilian people. The minute I walked out into the hall they started booing. That’s not something that has ever happened in badminton before.

"A lot of athletes had been talking about the same thing that a lot of the athletes had been booing a lot. So I just got hit with that storm straight away as soon as I walk out onto court. I was already nervous because I knew the crowd would be big but I really wasn’t expecting the booing. I needed to start fast and make sure that the tempo was high in the game. If the tempo was high, there’s no way he could follow and it’s exactly what happened in the first set.

"I began to feel it was so easy that I could relax a little and play some more. I walked out for the second set and Boom! The crowd just smacks me in the face. Suddenly the nerves come in and I’m tense. My legs start to straighten up instead of being bent."

With nerves beginning to set, Evans took a moment to take stock of what he had accomplished on a global stage and what this third experience had meant to them.

"The things I began saying to myself was no matter what happens, even if you do lose, God I enjoyed this atmosphere. This is once in a lifetime. It was my third Olympics so I wanted to enjoy that because at the time I wasn’t sure - and I’m still not sure - if I’ll go for one more. Possibly my last game in the Olympics so I need to enjoy that as well.

"Towards the end of the second set I ended up winning eight or nine points in a row and almost closed it out in two sets. I felt I was back in control and that I found my game again, mentally I’m also in control.

"The crowd were doing all sorts of crazy things, saying they wanted to kill me. I didn’t find out til after but they were chucking stuff at my Mum and Dad.

"But I was able to control myself and I came through it strong. They were both huge results for different reasons."

Evans in the aftermath of beating Ygor Coelho De Oliveira. Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

His exit from the competition at the hands of 22-year-old Axelsen came with the familiar tinge of disappointment. Another Olympics go by having just fallen short.

And while a lot of the noise came from off the court, in the background and occasionally in the ring from an Irish perspective, the Rio Games offered hope not only to Evans, but a generation of Irish athletes.

"I think we had 16 or 17 top-10 performances. A lot of people just look at the two medals but if you actually look at the bigger picture, you’ll see that we have had so many top-10 performances.

"That’s not far away from medals. I mean, Thomas Barr is getting very, very close to getting a medal.

"That gives me belief that if I personally can get a good training environment sorted for myself, I don’t see I can't medal. I think I’m capable of beating some of the top players. I suppose in badminton we’re in an era where these top two Chinese guys [Chen Long and Lin Dan] as well as Lee Chong Wei [Malaysian world number one].

"I don’t think they’ll be competing at the next Olympics, definitely not Lin Dan and definitely not Lee Chong Wei. Chen Long could do it.

"I suppose there is a gap in a way, but I really don’t think it’s that far for me to get up to that level. Again, it all comes down to me with the training and a little bit of funding of course."

For Team Ireland, the Games were on of the most successful effort. Evans reckons that some of that is down to how close the team have been during their time in Rio.

"I think the Irish team did extremely well this time around. It felt like as a team we were more together this time, more than I had experienced in Beijing and London. I think that played a role in what the Irish team has such a high number of top performances.

"I know we only came back with two medals, but if you look at the bigger picture I think it’s been an incredible Olympics for Team Ireland."

The experience has taught Evans many things about his career and by making history in Rio he has been immortalised in the annals of Irish sport. 

And for Evans, none of this would have been possible had he not stayed true to himself.

With additional reporting from Raf Diallo