Badminton women’s doubles star on her vegan diet and why China is so close to her heart
Australian Gronya Somerville might wear the yellow Aussie T-shirt when winning titles, but has a Chinese father and is a descendant of a prominent Chinese scholar
I meet Gronya Somerville for lunch on a polluted Monday near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Her face lights up as she browses through the restaurant’s rather inventive menu. We go for “lamb skewers” (except they are made of mushrooms) and “grilled salmon” made of tofu with a crust of seaweed.
She had clearly anticipated my first question about her lifestyle. “Both my coach and my doctor were very supportive when I decided to become a vegetarian, or rather 90 per cent vegan,” she says. “There are so many myths surrounding veganism. People are especially concerned about protein but there are plenty of sources of both protein and all other necessary nutrients available to vegans.”
Somerville, ranked 36th in the world in women’s doubles badminton with partner Setyana Mapasa, is in Beijing for a week of training. She is thrilled to have been given the opportunity to train with the Chinese national badminton team and has also managed to squeeze in meetings and a gala hosted by her sponsor, sporting goods company Li-Ning.
Somerville was born and raised in Melbourne, where she lives with her Australian mother. Although she wears the yellow Aussie T-shirt on court, China has always been close to her heart. Her father, who died when she was three, came from Guangzhou, and several years ago she discovered she is a fifth-generation descendant of the famous scholar Kang Youwei.
“I am extremely proud of my Chinese heritage,” she says as she shows me pictures from the evening before. She was invited by the national TV broadcaster CCTV to film a speech about her great-great-grandfather as well as her badminton career.
“I managed to read the first page of the speech in Chinese and it felt great,” she says and smiles at her Chinese teacher, Chloe, seated next to her.
Why badminton, I ask.
“I’ve always loved sport and as a child, my mum let me try lots of different things. But when one of my teachers handed me a pamphlet advertising badminton trials, it was love at first hit,” she recalls.
“A game like tennis is predominantly a two-dimensional game where, from the forehand and backhand side, you only have a certain number of options. In badminton, you have the same options but with an added third dimension which is the overhead game. The high and loopy shots add another level of tactics and quick decision making,” she explains.
She may be famous in the badminton world and have over 100,000 Instagram followers, but Somerville claims she is hardly ever recognised on the streets in Melbourne. This allows her to lead a fairly normal life, and when she is not travelling for championships and training around the world she is studying exercise science at Victoria University in Melbourne.
“It was important for me to get a proper education in something that really interests me,” she says.
On a typical day, she leaves the house at 6.30am and eats her porridge in the car on her way to the courts. After her daily training she goes to university – again eating lunch in the car. “I normally prepare a salad with beans and dressing in the morning and eat it with some kind of carbohydrates.”
She loves to cook vegan and vegetarian food, so after her daily afternoon lessons at university and further study time at home, she enjoys a home-cooked meal with her mother. That is usually followed by some relaxing or a Skype call with her boyfriend, New Zealand badminton player Maika Phillips, who she has been with for seven years in a long-distance relationship.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve had to sacrifice a lot for my badminton career, especially considering the experiences I’ve been blessed with,” she says. “But yes, I would of course love it if [my boyfriend and I] could live in the same city. But at the moment we both travel too much for it to make sense for one of us to move to the other’s country only to find our partner overseas much of the time. For now, we just try to see if we can get our schedules to match and make the most of the time we do have together.”
Somerville has to think long and hard when asked what else she has had to sacrifice for her career — apart from missing out on birthday parties and other festivities. After a while she exclaims, “Ah yes, I know! My friends from university will go out and get jobs after graduation. But badminton is my job and it sometimes concerns me that I won’t be able to get work experience within the field of exercise science. But right now, I can’t afford to think about it too much.”
Five quick questions for Gronya Somerville:
Best holiday ever?
“After my boyfriend and I participated at the Oceania Badminton Championships in Tahiti in 2016, we managed to go for four days to the beautiful nearby island of Moorea.”
“How Not To Die by Dr Michael Greger. It’s about foods that can prevent diseases and was recommended to me by a vegan friend.”
“I absolutely love vegan dim sum and burritos.”
Longest time without exercising?
“Four days in a row.”
“Riverdale [an American teen drama based on characters from Archie Comics] and Death Note [a Japanese manga series about a mysterious notebook].”