Many of her co-workers don’t know it, but Erika Von Heiland Strader has been closer to Olympic action than just about anyone they’re likely to meet.

In fact, she's been under the bright lights herself. Twice.  

Von Heiland Strader, director of community marketing at Coca-Cola North America, represented the United States badminton team in two consecutive Olympic Games – 1992 in Barcelona and 1996 in Atlanta. As the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro build towards their conclusion, we caught up with her to chat about Olympic-level badminton (Hint: it’s not for the faint of heart!), and how the Olympic mindset translates into the workforce.

You’ve been a longtime ambassador for a sport that’s huge around the world, but not very well known in the U.S. What’s your ‘elevator speech’ about badminton?

This is not the backyard game many of us in the United States know. That version is probably played with a hot dog in one hand, a Coke in the other, and a racquet somewhere in between, right? Well, on the Olympic level, this thing right here (holds a shuttlecock) travels 200 miles an hour. If you don’t serve it just exactly right, it will be smashed right back at you – that’s why many competitors wear eye protection. Badminton is the fastest racquet sport in the world. It’s not just popular, it’s very popular – badminton is the second-largest participation sport in the world, after soccer.

Badminton debuted as a full medal sport in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics. That year, my understanding is that there wasn’t a single minute of badminton showing in the U.S., however, it received the second-largest TV viewership in the world. The second-largest sport in the world, but not a minute showing in the U.S. But we worked hard spread the word. Eventually, some of us got to appear on the two top late-night talk shows here in the U.S. That was a blast!

Erika Von Heiland Strader Badminton

You had to push hard to even qualify for the 1992 Olympics. That must have involved a lot of stress and uncertainty. What was that like?

It was very difficult. Basically, I had to go on an Olympic qualifying tour for 18 months around the world. I was in college, and they said I had to give up my scholarship. There wasn’t an Olympic qualifying exemption in place for longer than two weeks, which is customary for high-profile sports in the U.S. So, you’re on the road for 18 months. Since it was our inaugural year, the U.S. funded me at first. But halfway through, they cut me off in order to dedicate financial resources to the women’s doubles team. At the time, they felt that team had a reasonable likelihood of qualifying. Made sense to them. To me, there was no choice. I put my college scholarship on the line, and I was going to focus on completing the qualifying and giving it my absolute best. I took out loans and travelled on a tight budget around the world. At the end of 18 months, I was absolutely stunned to know that I had qualified as the highest-ranked American female.

Fast forward to ’96 in Atlanta. The host country was guaranteed one spot, so the U.S. Badminton Association had all the top players fight it out, self-funded, for one year around the world. So I started in Bermuda with a quick win. Might as well start somewhere nice, right? The qualifying process was very meticulous. You had to figure out the point system. A lot of the men went to European countries where they could actually win lower-star-rated tournaments and feel good about it. They wanted to win, whereas my doubles partner and I went to Asia – the toughest tournaments in the world – and got clobbered. But making the first round in Asia, you got more qualifying points than you would if you won a European tournament.

People think that if you’re the best at your sport in your country, you’re obviously going to get into the Olympics. But that’s not actually the case. After 1996, the U.S. did not have a woman represented until the Beijing Olympics, 12 years later.

Where does the strongest competition come from?

Typically, in Asia: Korea, China and Indonesia. In 1996 in Atlanta, Denmark won the gold medal. Denmark is historically extremely good.

In Asian countries, badminton stars are treated like baseball stars are here in the United States. If I’m in Indonesia and walking around in the streets, they’re like, "Oh my goodness, there’s a badminton player!" In the 1992 Olympics, Indonesia won the gold medal in men’s and ladies singles. Each player received $500,000, a house and a car from their government. That was 24 years ago.

"Badminton is the fastest racquet sport in the world. It’s not just popular, it’s very popular – badminton is the second-largest participation sport in the world, after soccer."

Tell me about the physicality of the sport. Watching the footage, it’s obvious that it’s intense.

Definitely. It’s really based on your anatomy, but your knees and back can take the brunt of it. Once you have a knee injury, it’s grueling. You’re lopsided. We trained six hours a day. I trained for 12 years, six hours a day. The single most important thing is skipping rope. Double jumps for an hour, and the men do triple jumps. It requires finesse, agility, speed, control and an extremely high level of endurance. You think boxers do a lot of skip rope?

How does your career as an Olympic athlete inspire your work here at Coca-Cola, and your approach to life?

Well – if you can’t tell already – I’m passionate. I could not have picked a better company than Coca-Cola to begin my career with. The foundation of the Coca-Cola culture was extremely compatible with the Olympic Games. Every single tool I need to be a “champion” in life, I learned on my Olympic journey. So for me, my destination was that whole journey for 12 years. For me, that’s what it was about – striving for excellence as a foundation of everything you do. These are all the qualities athletes have at a minimum, and I brought that with me into the professional workforce.

What is it about Olympians or champions in life that make me successful in the workforce? It’s about mindset. I go into the marketplace, and I redefine obstacles as challenges. I embrace those challenges as opportunities for success. I constantly stretch beyond my comfort zone each and every day to where it becomes the new normal. A “Champion in Life” mindset is about passion – true passion to win in this business.