Winning pair on the badminton court, loving couple off it
A few passersby stopped to smile and say “hello” to Molly, who was in a playful mood, amusing herself with toys in the hotel lobby. But the one-year-old, who has just recently learnt to walk, tripped and her parents—Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl—came rushing to attend to her.
Pedersen and Rytter Juhl, tall, lithe, and dressed in identical black sporting jackets, together make one of the most successful women’s doubles pairs in badminton. Last year, after a decade of threatening Asia’s dominance—with a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics and three world championship medals to show for it—the two players retired from the game and embarked on a new adventure—parenthood.
But it was badminton that brought them together, and led them on a journey of self discovery. They met each other for the first time while playing badminton, and after a few years in the Danish national badminton set up, where they became close friends, they realised that their friendship had grown into love.
“In the beginning it was fantastic but also a difficult and hard period because neither of us had thought or expected to be in love with another girl. But I just completely fell in love with Kamilla and we needed to figure out what to do back in 2009,” says Pedersen, who is currently playing the Premier Badminton League (PBL) for Awadhe Warriors. “We just developed feelings for each other which we felt was completely right and true. We wanted to be together and so after a lot of talk we told our friends and families, who supported us at that time.”
Though they informed their loved ones, the Danish couple did not open up about their relationship to the world as they wanted the focus to remain strictly on their game. It was only after their silver at Rio 2016 that the couple decided to come out publicly.
“Before we came out and told our story it was important to just be known as good badminton players instead of being known as two girls who are together. It wasn’t that we had been hiding (our relationship) the past years but we had to protect ourselves,” says the 33-year-old Pedersen, who also has a mixed doubles bronze from 2012 London Olympics.
Initially worried about the repercussions of coming out, the Danish couple were overwhelmed with the support they got.
“We didn’t know what to expect but after the story was told we could really feel the support from all around the world. It was an amazing feeling to receive hundreds of positive messages. Everyone was really positive. It was fantastic,” says Pedersen, who was ranked as high as world No.2 in women’s doubles and No.1 in mixed. “We could feel that people were respecting us.”
Women athletes have led the way in claiming space for LGBTQ sportspeople—from New Zealand cricketers Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu who got married in 2017, British boxer Nicola Adams and American football star Megan Rapinoe—a gay icon—to South Africa’s Caster Semenya and India’s Dutee Chand, the only openly gay athlete in the country.
“It is very important that people feel safe to step out and say that ‘we are in a same sex relationship’,” says Rytter Juhl, 36. “It’s okay for us to be role models but is it necessary? Unfortunately, it is.
“For me it should just be okay to be who you are, same sex relationship or not. It’s not like we want to promote anything. We just want to be us. It’s important that men also feel that it is okay for them (to be who they are).”
Fellow Danish ice hockey star Jon Lee-Olsen made headlines in October 2019 when he decided to come out on live television.
“It’s good that people aren’t afraid anymore,” says Rytter Juhl, who has won the European Championships seven times—four with Pedersen. “In Denmark it’s very common to see same sex relationships, for both men and women.”
Denmark has always been at the forefront when it comes to recognising the rights of the LGBTQ community—it was the first country in the world to grant legal recognition to same sex unions, in the form of registered partnerships, in 1989 (same sex marriages were legalised in 2012).
“We are just pleased we live in 2020. It could have been more difficult 50 or 100 years ago. I am pleased that the world is changing and people respect a family like ours. We are also lucky because in Denmark it is common to have kids even if you are two women who are together,” says Pedersen.
After experiencing the joys (and the occasional pain) of a glittering sporting career, the decision to start a family flowed naturally.
“It was easy to decide that it was time for a new chapter, time for us to have a baby. It was totally an automatic decision and we could just feel it was the right time for us to start a family together,” says Pedersen. “Now we are really enjoying our motherhood, every day and every moment.”
Molly is now at the centre of their lives. The couple—who still play in the Danish league as well as in the PBL—try to manage their schedule in such a way that they get to spend as much time as possible with their daughter.
“It’s different, funny, tough—all kinds of mixed feelings,” says Rytter Juhl. “Some days you think everything is wonderful and you want to have 10 children. The next day you think it is tough to have just one. But most of the time it’s amazing.”
Molly is also made a part of their travel plans. In India for the first time, the one-year-old has already taken strolls in the streets of Chennai and Lucknow and is currently in Hyderabad to see her mother, Pedersen, in action.
Rytter Juhl took Molly to the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium where she had won her only gold at the World Championships—in mixed doubles in 2009.
“Just to step inside the stadium, see and feel when we won the World Championship… it was so special going there with Molly. I still get goosebumps!”
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