It’s been a year full of challenges for Jess Pugh
The timing of a worldwide health pandemic could hardly have been more unfortunate for Jess Pugh’s badminton career.
After more than a decade with mixed doubles partner Ben Lane, Pugh, 23, was placed with a new partner, Callum Hemming, at the turn of the year.
The duo, who were already long-term pals, were hoping to harness their relationship on the court in 2020. Train hard, enter and win lesser-ranking events and build themselves up.
Pugh, from Telford, and Lane had worked their way to 28th in the world in mixed doubles, winning top tier events along the way – including in Poland, Belgium and Spain last year.
Indeed, with a sense of irony, Pugh confesses it was probably her most successful period on the court with Lane, but adds ‘for reasons that made sense’ the decision was made to change partners – with Lane to focus on men’s doubles alone.
But, as with all sports and society as a whole, all plans were scuppered less than a quarter into the new year, with the new pair still in the very infant stages of their partnership.
“This has probably come at the worst time for us,” Pugh admits. “Ben and I had been playing together since I was 12, so 10 or 11 years, it’s a massive change.
“This year and the end of last year have definitely been the hardest of my career for sure.
“I’ve never experienced a partner change. It’s something new and brings new challenges.
“My new partner is a bit younger than me so I’m having to take on a bit more of a leadership role. Every time you start a new partnership you have to start from scratch, building everything back up.
“It’s been hard, but I’m hoping it’s definitely going to be rewarding when we can compete again.
“It makes you a better rounded athlete, I think I definitely needed it.”
There is ambitious long-term thinking behind Pugh’s new partnership with Hemming, 20.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics (now taking place in 2021) might have come too soon for the Shropshire player – only the nation’s top ranked players or partnerships qualify for the Olympics – with Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith currently top 10.
But the Paris Games of 2024 are very much in Pugh’s sights. “The plan for the new partnership is the Paris Olympics,” she adds. “In badminton it’s very hard. In every event there’s only one pair or player.
“Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith are ranked top 10 and you have to be the highest rank.
“It’s good because we’re training with them every day (when training returns) and it’s making us better, but because only one pair can qualify they will be in Tokyo.
“They’re a lot older, I’m hoping that by the time Paris comes around I’ll be in the number one for sure.
“And we don’t just want to qualify, of course, we want to win medals.”
But, for now, Pugh has returned to her parent’s home in Shawbirch from her badminton base in Milton Keynes, where the National Badminton Centre is based.
She is experienced for a 23-year-old, having left home at 16 to pursue the professional dream. By this point Pugh is very much a veteran to the demands of the sport, the unsociable hours, countless air miles and general non-stop lifestyle.
So being back home in Telford with mum Gill and dad Mark is, if nothing else, strange.
“It’s been mad. It’s been nice in ways. I’ve definitely tried to look at the positives as much as I can,” she says. “I don’t usually stay with my parents – I haven’t spent this much time with them since I was 16. It’s nice to see them so much.
“A lot of people are devastated because they can’t go on holiday but for me, I don’t think I’ll get this time in the next 10 years to be off at home in England.
“It’s been very nice for that but I’m definitely ready to get out there and compete again.”
Pugh recently posted pictures online of Gill turning from mum into coach, launching shuttles over the back garden net for her to smash back in return.
“She tries to but it’s hard with the wind!” former Charlton School student Pugh laughed. “She’s just throwing it over to me to get a feel of it.
“I haven’t used it that much, I just posted that online for a bit of fun.
“At the start it was a little bit like being under their feet, or them being under my feet!
“I’ve adjusted now. It’ll be weird to go back now, I’ve got used to being at home. I moved away at 16 so it was huge to mature.”
It’s not been a time to completely laze around for the youngster. She has been putting in the hard yards running and set up a turbo training device for her bike in the garden, with her coaches in regular contact.
Times are uncertain. Pugh does not receive a wage. She is essentially self-
employed, with prize money and sponsorship acting as income. But she has not been bogged down worrying about finances.
Badminton’s return will be tough. An indoor sport, it has to be more strict than tennis or golf – which have already opened up their courses and courts.
But Pugh, who began playing as a six-year-old with her brother Jamie at Idsall School-based Shifnal Badminton Club, saw some light at the end of the tunnel this week when Badminton England welcomed elite players back to the national centre in Milton Keynes for training.
“It’s hard not knowing when we are going to be playing again,” Pugh, who played football for Shrewsbury Town as a youngster and had a golf handicap of 16 aged 12, added.
“We’re an indoor sport so it’s a lot harder. Every governing body and business is facing financial problems so that’s a concern for Badminton England.
“It’s indoor, we use the same shuttles, and also I’m a doubles player. I have a partner next to me.
“They have a lot of people working behind the scenes so hopefully they’ve done a good job and we’ll all be OK.”