Ready, set, gold!

As the Commonwealth Games draw near, we track four athletes who promise to push up our medals tally.

entertainment Updated: Sep 18, 2010 17:45 IST
Veenu Singh
Veenu Singh
Hindustan Times

With exactly two weeks to go before the Commonwealth Games begin, you’d imagine our athletes – particularly those who have all our hopes pinned on them– would be nervous wrecks by now. But they’re not. Instead, they’re devoting their time to what comes naturally to them – training. Focused on their goals, intent on identifying and eliminating any weakness in this brief time that they have left before they go live, there is only one thought on their minds – a gold at the Commonwealth Games.

The Games have a total of 17 sports events: aquatics, archery, athletics, badminton, boxing, cycling, gymnastics, hockey, lawn bowls, net ball, rugby sevens, shooting, squash, table tennis, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling. India is competing in all categories and is expected to have the advantage of home ground and home crowd. But India is tipped to win gold medals only in some disciplines such as shooting, weightlifting, boxing, archery, wrestling, tennis and badminton. Sportspersons to watch out for include Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang, Tejaswini Sawant, Samaresh Jung (shooting), Dola Banerjee (archery), Sushil Kumar (wrestling), Mahesh Bhupathi, Leander Paes (tennis) and others.

Saina Nehwal

And of course, the list also includes the four sportspersons we have featured in our cover story: badminton player Saina Nehwal, ranked at world no. 3, currently training at Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad; weightlifter K Ravi Kumar (the Indian champion in the 69 kg category); and wrestlers (and sisters) Geeta and Babita (both won gold at the Commonwealth championship last year in Jalandhar). Ravi and the two sisters are currently training hard at the Netaji Subhash National Institute of Sports (NSIS), Patiala.

The Commonwealth Games have mostly been sunk in controversy this year. In the last few months, our minds have been on everything but actual sport. Our athletes however, have stayed focused. It’s time we focused on them. Read on.

Wrestling: Geeta and Babita
“We are as tough as the boys”

Last year, wrestler sisters Geeta and Babita won golds at the Commonwealth Championship. This year, they’re sure they’ll do a repeat at the Commonwealth Games. “The training is tiring and tough, but we understand the importance of it, especially at this time,” says Geeta, a 21-year-old who competes in the 55 kg category. “Since we train together, it gives us a chance to guide each other and offer suggestions,” adds Babita, a 20-year-old who competes in the 51 kg category.

Their father, Mahabir Singh Phagot, a wrestler from Balali village, district Bhiwani, was actually ostracised by the villagers for encouraging his daughters to take up wrestling. But, today, the girls are seen as the pride of the village.

Ask them why they chose to be wrestlers and all you get is a smile. “Our father as well as our grandfather were wrestlers, so we’ve been familiar with the game right from childhood. We started practicing at the age of seven with our male cousins in the mud and strengthened our technique there for four-five years,” explains Geeta.

But isn’t wrestling a dangerous sport with a high chance of getting injured? And isn’t being a girl a hindrance? “Injuries are part and parcel of all games and that is the case with wrestling too. Our knees and back are the most vulnerable and even the cartilage of the ear is prone to injury most of the time but with practice you learn to avoid getting hurt,” says Geeta who is currently completing her final year of graduation.

“In fact, our mother who is also the sarpanch of the village, has been very supportive of our decision to take up wrestling. She never told us to sit at home and learn how to cook and do all the things that girls are supposed to do,” adds Babita, who is also doing her graduation.

Both the sisters have always been highly motivated, and seldom suffer from anxiety or nervousness. “Even if we do, we have our coaches, who are very close to us, to talk to and there are psychologists at the centre if we need them,” says Geeta. “Plus, we are always in touch with our family, so that is a big help.”

Their training schedules are rigorous in the extreme, but there’s also time for the girls to relax and motivate themselves in other ways. “Generally we sleep, play carrom or watch TV,” says Babita.

They also make the most of Sundays, their day of rest, going out shopping for clothes (they enjoy picking up jeans and T-shirts) and grabbing the chance to eat things like samosas, sandwiches and mithai. “But we’re always happy to get back to training on Monday,” says Geeta. “And we know what we’ll do with our prize money when we win. We’ll use it to build a hall in our village for anyone who wants to give wrestling a try. As of now, everybody only trains in mud.”

Babita and Geeta
20 years and 21 years
Category: Babita 51 kg; Geeta 55 kg
Last gold in: Commonwealth Championship in 2009

Training and diet schedule
6.00 am - Wake up time. The sisters get ready for training.
7.30 -10.30 am - Morning training. This usually includes a mix of running or jogging, along with a workout at the gym where the sisters do a mix of sit ups and push ups. This is followed by mat training, which includes wrestling bouts on the mat with another person. As the Games draw near, the training gets tougher.
11.00 am - Breakfast consists of either cornflakes or dalia, bread, eggs, milk and fruits. This is followed by some rest time when the sisters either listen to music or watch TV.
2.00 pm - Lunch usually consists of either chicken or mutton, daal, chapatis and vegetables. After lunch, the girls catch up on their sleep before getting ready for the evening training.
5.30 pm - 7.30 pm - The evening training consists of mat training and working on one’s weak points.
8.00 pm - Dinner, like lunch, consists of daal, roti, rice, paneer and vegetables.
9.30pm - After a long day, it’s finally time to rest. those aching muscles.

Weightlifting: K Ravi Kumar
“I am all set to win”

He looks too slight, slim and – frankly – shy to be a weightlifter. But 22-year-old K Ravi Kumar is going for the gold in his 69 kg category at the Commonwealth Games. And though he does admit to twinges of anxiety every now and then, he’s confident about his chances in the arena.

“At the time of selection I performed extremely well and I am confident of giving my best at the Games too,” says Ravi, smiling. “I do get nervous at times because I know what people are expecting from me, but that’s not often. Our coaches are doing an excellent job and my ultimate aim is to get a medal at the 2012 Olympics.”

Ravi is from Berhampur in Orissa and though he was always interested in body building, he had never really planned to be an athlete. That thought was planted in his head by his uncle, also a weightlifter. For a while Ravi wavered, but in 2007 he began to take it seriously and in the last three years, his name has become one to watch out for.

“I lost my father at an early age and my mother, who teaches at an aanganwadi, has been the only breadwinner for the family,” he says, explaining why he eventually decided to take up the sport. “So one major reason for choosing sports as a career was the fact that besides earning a good name for myself and my state, I would also be ensured of a secure job. And with a sport like weightlifting, it is easier to get into the international circuit.”

As of now, Ravi is a havaldar with the Army, and usually trains at the Army Sports Institute in Pune. However, for the last two months he’s been with the weightlifting squad at the Netaji Subhash National Institute of Sports, Patiala. “I have been away from home for almost five years, but it’s essential to be completely focused on your goals,” says Ravi. “Here, the whole day is dedicated to training. And it’s not just the physical training that matters. Your mental attitude matters just as much.”

The schedule is rigorous, but the sportspersons in Ravi’s squad – and these are people who are confident that they will bring at least 10 medals home to India, possibly 15 – do have a day to relax, go shopping and watch movies.

K Ravi Kumar
22 years
Category: 69 kg
Last gold in: Commonwealth Championship held in February this year.

Training and diet schedule
6 am - Time to get up and get ready for the day.
7.00 -8.00 am - The squad, including Ravi, heads to the field for a warm up session. This includes jogging, running and stretching.
9 am -11.00 am - After a quick breakfast of bread, eggs, milk and cornflakes, Ravi hits the gym. For the next two hours he and his team mates practice front squats, the power snatch or the power cling (both done with weights), plus hyper exercises using the exercise bar to strengthen their backs.
2.00 pm - Lunch usually consists of chicken, daal, chapatis and lots of veggies. This is followed by a short nap.
4.30 pm - 7.00 pm - Classical training that involves doing everything Ravi would actually do in a weightlifting competition. This includes the snatch (lifting the weights directly from the ground), the clean (lifting the weights up to the neck), and the jerk (straightening and lifting the weights up). This routine is followed from Monday to Friday with the exception of Thursday, which is reserved for other sports, like volleyball, cricket and football. On Saturday Ravi has a ground session and in the evening the steam and sauna sessions are followed by a massage that provides much needed relaxation.
8.00 pm - Dinner is similar to lunch, but includes paneer and sweets.
9.30 pm - After a long day, it’s finally time to rest.

Badminton: Saina Nehwal
“I don’t feel any mental pressure ”

Saina Nehwal, our great badminton hope, is not at all nervous. She’s just doing what comes naturally to her now. Training. Training. Training. “Earlier I used to be very nervous before a tournament but these days I have become focused and calm,” says Saina. “I feel comfortable in the knowledge that I have enough experience to deal with any kind of competition and so I don’t feel any kind of mental pressure.”

We all know about Saina. She’s 20 years old; she’s coached by Indonesian badminton legend Atik Jauhari and mentored by former All-England champion Pullela Gopichand; the Badminton World Federation has ranked her the No. 3 player in the world, and she is the highest ranked badminton player in Indian history – not only in the women’s category. But she is far from complacent.

That may come from her background. Both her parents are badminton champions and have been a big driving force in shaping her career. “My dad has devoted a lot of time and money to my training and has ensured that I get the best of everything possible,” says Saina, adding that though she is very close to her mother, she always shares all her problems with both her parents.

While her talent and flair for the game are beyond doubt, what makes the difference between good and great players is their attitude towards training. “As an athlete, I have to constantly keep a check on my fitness,” says Saina. “Exercise and workouts are an integral part of an athlete’s practice and life. With just about two weeks left for the Games, I am preparing hard and focusing on all my weak points.”

Her training schedule is rigorous in the extreme. A mix of running, weight training, badminton drills and on-court exercises, it is scientifically designed to allow maximum impact, but also ensures that her muscles have time to recover. “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 my food intake to make sure I don’t put on weight,” reveals Saina.

So what, according to her, is the most important aspect of her training? “I think running is the most important part of my sessions,” says Saina. “I like to stretch rallies as much as possible, forcing opponents into errors. With that sort of game plan, I need to make sure I am always fitter than those I play against. So when they tire, I can run away with the game.”

All coaches say discipline and mental strength are vital for success. Saina is proof of that. Her day starts at 5 am and ends by 9 pm. With six hours of training a day, plus the travel for tournaments, she has no time for movies, boyfriends or anything but badminton. “I am very conscious about my body and totally avoid junk food unless it’s a very special occasion,” says Saina, adding that given a chance she would love to indulge in aloo paranthas, paneer, naan and milkshakes.

And she makes sure she always gets a good night’s sleep. “Eight hours at night, and a nap if I have back-to-back matches. That’s my secret,” says Saina. She also relaxes by listening to Bollywood songs and is looking forward to watching Dabangg when her part in the Commonwealth Games is over. Her ultimate goal though is to make it to the number one ranking besides clinching a gold at the forthcoming London Olympics in 2012. In the meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games draw close...

Saina Nehwal
20 years
Category: Senior
Last gold in: Singapore Super Series and Indonesia Super Series, in June 2010.

Training and diet schedule
5 am - Day begins with some meditation.
7.30 -11.30 am - A light breakfast of bread, eggs and milk, followed by morning training. This includes playing at the courts with coach Pullela Gopichand, and running (sprints, cross-training and long runs). Saina also does interval training that includes 30 seconds of sprint followed by another 30 seconds of jogging. She does drills that improve reflexes, footwork, accuracy and agility.
1.30 pm - Lunch usually consists of chicken, daal, chapatis and lots of veggies. After lunch, a little rest.
3.30 pm - 7.30 pm - Time to hit the gym for weight training and agility training to aid quicker movement.
8.00 pm - Dinner is quite similar to lunch. And then, early to bed.

First Published: Sep 17, 2010 20:12 IST