What better day than August 15 to begin a series on Indian sporting heroes? We begin a 12-part series looking at the blood and sweat hundreds of our athletes are putting into training for a podium finish in the first Commonwealth Games on Indian soil.
To some, the Games may seem a relic of the British Raj but it is also the world's second largest sporting spectacle.
We begin with Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, Saina Nehwal. Her rise to the upper echelons of women's badminton has been nothing short of meteoric. From her world junior championships gold through completing a hattrick of titles including two Super Series crowns back-to-back, to her current position as world No.2 in the women's rankings, Saina, just 20, is currently the most successful Indian woman in sport.
Coached by Indonesian badminton legend Atik Jauhari and mentored by former All-England champion Pullela Gopi Chand, Saina's rise has not been a fluke, nor is it one that is likely to be short-lived.
While her talent and flair for the game is beyond doubt, what makes the difference between good and great players is their attitude towards training. Saina is very honest about how important training is in her life.
"As an athlete, I have to constantly keep a check on my fitness. Exercises and workouts are an integral part of our practice and our lives,” she says.
“Personally, I think running is the most important part of my sessions. I like to stretch rallies as much as possible, forcing opponents into errors. With that sort of game plan, I need to always make sure I am fitter than those I play against. So, when they tire, I can run away with the game.”
So what is her training schedule like?
“My fitness regime is extremely rigorous and scientifically designed to allow maximum impact, while ensuring the muscles have enough recovery time. It is a mix of running, weight training, badminton drills and on-court exercises.
“Depending on the number of tournaments I play, the routine keeps changing because during and between tournaments, the training is focused on things I will need in my armoury immediately. When there is more time, the focus is more towards long-term goals.
Normally, I go through 11 session a week. It works out to between six and seven hours every day. The running routines include sprints, cross-training, long runs and working with weights three times a week.” Between runs, Saina loves doing drills to break the monotony.
“The drills are to improve reflexes, footwork, accuracy and agility. Of course, training is never complete without sweating it out on courts for hours.”
All good coaches say discipline and mental strength are vital to being successful. Compared to boys and girls her age who go to college, hang out with friends and do things young people like doing, Saina lives like a monk. Her day starts at 5am and ends by 9 pm. With six hours of training in between, plus the regular travel and tournaments, there's no time for movies, boyfriends and other girly pursuits.
“I am very conscious about my body and I strictly avoid junk food unless it's a very special occasion. Injuries come with the sport I play, especially leg injuries. If I have injured my knee, I work on my abs or arms or do weights. Also, when I'm not playing, I reduce food intake to make sure I don't put on weight.” And she makes sure to get a good night's sleep. “Eight hours at night, and a nap if I have back-to-back matches. That's my secret.”
Clearly, when they taught her in school about the virtues of 'early to bed and early to rise' Saina paid attention. And as for showcasing the virtues of hard work being the key to success, Saina can be a template to the nation. Tomorrow we look at young weightlifting medal hope K Ravi Kumar’s training routine.
Place of birth: Hisar, Haryana
Height: 5 ft 5 in
Weight: 60 kg
2006: Philippines Open Grand Prix World Junior championship (silver);
Commonwealth Games (team bronze)
2008: Commonwealth Youth Games gold; World Junior c’ship gold; Chinese Taipei Open
2009: Indonesia Open Super series; Syed Modi Grand Prix
2010: Asian c’ship (Bronze); First woman to reach semis of the prestigious All England; Winner of India Open; Winner of
Singapore Open Super Series; Winner of Indonesia Open Super Series