LANSING | Ilian Perez left his native land as a national champion.
"I thought if I could do it in Cuba, I could do it in the United States," Perez said of his badminton accomplishments and aspirations.
But he had to start again at the bottom.
"No one knew who I was or what I did or what I can do," said Perez, who worked several modest jobs while trying to establish a footing in the America. "But I was motivated to succeed here.
"People don't realize the opportunities this country offers compared to other places."
Perez eventually won the 2011 United States men's singles championship, attaining his goal of conquering two nations in badminton.
"After that, I retired from playing," said the 29-year-old Perez, who coaches and trains aspiring players at the Midwest Badminton Club that has locations in Naperville and Woodridge. "I'm focused more on coaching and getting my wife and family over here.
"It's been a long struggle," said Perez, who has been in the country since 2006 and recently cleared what he hopes to be the final hurdle to reunite with family early this year, "but we've never given up."
Perez and players from the Midwest Badminton Club participated in the National Badminton League's inaugural "Carlton Cup" held Dec. 27-28 at T.F. South High School.
"It's a way of trying to promote the team concept in badminton the way USTA Team Tennis does for tennis," NBL founder Donn Gobbie said. "It's where teams face each other in best-of-nine series with the home team determining the type of matches ... singles, doubles, mixed doubles."
Perez was the captain of one team and Alex Nagornov -- another national champion -- captained another.
"I don't know much about the former Soviet Union because I was born the year of the breakup," said Nagornov, who grew up in Moldova, where he is a five-time national champion. "I don't know if things are really much better there now than they were before.
"If you're a minority (like Nagornov is in his country), it can be difficult living in Moldova."
Nagornov is studying marketing a Moraine Valley College in Palos Hills.
"I like to believe I have a shot at making the Olympics some day," the 22-year-old Nagornov said, "but you've got to travel to face the best competition and to get your ranking up. That costs money."
The Carlton Cup was held at the home of the 2013 Illinois girls state badminton champions.
"We trying to get more people out for our open play night," Rebels girls coach Bob Tengstrand said. The team opens the gym from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays to welcome badminton players.
The 2013 team was the second girls squad in school history to win a state title.
"We've been getting more interest in the sport," said Tengstrand, who also coached the Rebels girls to a runner-up finish in 2011. "That's usually the case when students coming here see that you have a successful program."