Edgeworth teen, a fierce competitor, is among top badminton athletes in the world
Katherine Valli felt energized, vindicated even, as she stepped off the badminton court at the Irish Para-Badminton International in June.
She did it.
The 4-foot 2-inch tall 15-year-old had beaten the competition and was taking home the bronze for the USA Para-Badminton team in short stature 6 singles and a gold in the women’s mixed doubles category.
Tears streamed down her mother’s face as she watched in awe.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my daughter. She was such a fierce competitor. She’s the real deal,’” Alison Valli recalls thinking. “She was fierce. There was nothing that was going to stop her. She was focused. She was intense. It was unbelievable.”
Katherine Valli, a Quaker Valley High School sophomore who lives in Edgeworth, has taken the para badminton world by storm in the last three years.
Rising in ranks, she now is the No. 5 female short stature 6 para badminton player in the world.
A member of Team USA’s para-badminton team, Katherine, who has dwarfism, travels the world to compete at the top level in her sport. To train, she treks across the United States, to Los Angeles, Denver, Sioux Falls, Orlando, Chicago, Lansing and Baltimore.
This year alone, between competitions, training and attending conferences for Little People of America, she will travel 15 times. That includes international competitions in Ireland and Brazil.
In November, she will head to Lima, Peru for the Para Pan Am Championships. In August 2019, she will head to the World Championships in Basel, Switzerland.
“Badminton is kind of my balance for life,” Katherine said. “It’s letting your energy out. You’re letting out your passion.”
Katherine is a born athlete.
Her dad, Bo Valli recalls a time when his daughter was just 3 years old and the family visited an aquarium and every time he turned around there Katherine was, perched high up on something she had climbed.
She even asked her parents for “real football” jerseys, “not the fake stuff.”
It wasn’t so much that she was a fan of watching others play the game. She liked to throw the ball herself. She liked to tackle people. She had upper body strength parallel to none, her parents say.
In elementary school, Katherine was a competitive hockey player.
But, after several concussions, she was forced to quit the sport she loved.
But she needed to play something.
At 10-years-old, at the World Dwarf Games presented by the Dwarf Athletic Association of America held that year at Michigan State, Katherine brought home a slew of medals. That was the first time she ever played competitive badminton. Aside from that, the only time she had played the sport was at family reunions.
Three years ago, Katherine took up the sport competitively.
Her father flattened out the backyard so she could train.
But that’s not quite how it works, they learned quickly. Training requires a controlled space.
The Quaker Valley School District and Sewickley YMCA saved the day, the parents said.
Katherine and Bo practice several days a week in open gyms, although, they’re sometimes hard to come by.
They use the gym at Edgeworth Elementary and in the summer the one at Quaker Valley High School to practice.
The Sewickley YMCA gym was used on weekends, prior to the installation of new heating equipment that made the space unusable for Katherine’s training.
“It’s a unique situation,” said Mike Mastroianni, Quaker Valley’s director of athletics. “She’s a Quaker Valley student and we want to afford her an opportunity to advance forward, as best as we possibly can.”
While Katherine isn’t participating in a PIAA sport, Mastroianni said, the district still does its best when it can to assist her in excelling in athletics.
“Like any other student athlete, it’s part of your whole educational experience,” he said. “If it’s important to them, it’s important to us.”
In school, teachers have stepped up to help Katherine when she misses class for tournaments or training.
“We’re all a team,” said teacher Jessica Garavaglia, who has taught Katherine for two years at Quaker Valley High School. “Katherine is one of the most unique, most fascinating kids I’ve ever met. I had no idea there was even competitive badminton before I met her.”
Katherine sets goals for herself and is willing to put in the work to ensure she accomplishes them, Garavaglia said.
To learn strategies, skills and sportsmanship in badminton, the Valli family has traveled the country for coaching and training. Katherine trains, either doing leg work or practicing in the gym with dad, about 20 hours a week.
The only league for para badminton is international, which means, if Katherine is going to compete at that level, she has to travel the world, said Alison, who serves as Team USA’s Para badminton schedule coordinator.
Badminton is a new Paralympic sport in 2020. However, it’s only being introduced for the men.
The hope is that the sport will be introduced for women in Katherine’s category in 2024.
Katherine doesn’t let being a dwarf hold her back. Instead, she focuses on her strengths and relies on the network she has built with through organizations like the Little People of America.
“I think I’ve gained a lot of confidence from badminton,” she said.
Katherine has received her first corporate sponsor, Parking Systems of NY. Even neighbors, like the Rooney family, have helped contribute.
With the large costs of traveling and training -- all of which her family must pay for -- this is huge, her parents said. They hope to get more to help offset the costs.
Next year, Katherine hopes to compete in five international tournaments.
Her goal when she started competitive badminton was to break into the top five.
She’s already done that.
“It’s just the achievement,” she said of what keeps her going.