A community plan that led to India’s Paralympics badminton success
- The plan produced rich rewards at the just-ended Tokyo Paralympics where India’s shuttlers won four medals on the sport’s debut.
Palak Kohli recalls the evening of March 24 last year, watching the announcement on TV of the nationwide lockdown to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. The 17-year-old from Jalandhar had been away from home for seven months, training in Lucknow under the national para badminton coach, Gaurav Khanna.
“That moment, my eyes became moist. I didn’t know how I would manage things being stuck there for so long,” the youngster recalled. “But (Khanna) sir called me and said, “don’t worry, we’ll plan something”.”
That plan produced rich rewards at the just-ended Tokyo Paralympics where India’s shuttlers won four medals on the sport’s debut. It included two gold and came as a boost in the final weekend of the Games, helping India to finish with a record 19 medals. Kohli herself missed out on a bronze, but the teenager is proud she was part of something special.
While athletes around the country agonised for months as they waited for training centres to reopen, with the second wave of infections in April-May adding to the misery, Khanna and his trainees faced minimum hassles. Their build-up to Tokyo was smooth thanks to a dedicated training centre and lodgings nearby in Lucknow.
A Dronacharya awardee, Khanna organised both. He also helped the shuttlers wear the Paralympian tag in other ways. It all started when he was invited by World Badminton Federation to the 2014 Asian Para Games as a technical expert. Khanna met players like Pramod Bhagat—he won India’s first badminton gold in the Tokyo Paralympics—and bronze winner Manoj Sarkar for the first time.
The next year, he was appointed national para badminton coach, ahead of the 2015 world championships. A clutch of medals encouraged Khanna to get more involved in his new role. He began a talent hunt. He ran into Kohli in a mall in 2017 and persuaded her to take up the game and then convinced bureaucrat Suhas Yathiraj, the Noida district magistrate who won silver, to play seriously after spotting his talent while he was inaugurating a local tournament.
In December 2019, the Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy was launched. Its four courts—two wooden and two with synthetic mats—became an exclusive and uninterrupted training base for the seven-member Tokyo-bound squad.
Early during last year’s lockdown, even that centre was out of bounds. So they improvised. With Kohli, Krishna Nagar—the other gold medallist—and a few other trainees of Khanna stuck in the apartment in Lucknow, a makeshift outdoor court was set up in the garden. “Wind, rain, heat, nothing mattered. We just wanted to find a way to keep practising. That’s where Palak improved her game considerably,” Khanna said.
Once the hard lockdown norms eased, they could access the academy courts. “We had our own academy, with our lock and key. We locked it from inside,” he said.
The exclusive centre was born out of Khanna’s experience in 2016 when he took the para shuttlers to train at the UP Government’s Guru Govind Singh Sports College and later at the UP badminton academy in Lucknow. “The able-bodied shuttlers also trained there, so we would get it only after they were done,” he said.
It was after the success at the 2018 Asian Para Games that he was encouraged to set up the academy. A friend provided space for the courts in Lucknow’s Excellia School and academy took shape. “We’ve been training at the academy for more than a year now. We even got to use the courts during the Covid crisis, which would not have been possible if we were training elsewhere. Everyone can see the benefit of that with the results we delivered in Tokyo,” Bhagat said.
Equally important was the feeling of being treated equally. “Earlier, we used to get time on courts only when it was empty,” said Kohli, who lost the bronze playoff in mixed doubles partnering Bhagat and reached the singles quarter-finals. “From there, we headed into a world where you are first citizens.”
They also had a house of their own now. The rented apartment they stayed in wasn’t very disabled-friendly. So, Khanna took a loan, and with the help of other resources and support, built a house in the same complex where the academy stood. The 3,000 sq.ft. house with rooms for staying on the ground floor also has gym, massage and sauna rooms on the upper floors.
Khanna, an Indian Railways employee, spends a chunk of his salary to repay the loan. “Instead of sitting in the bank, the money is being used for something productive. I believe that you can either crib about things or do it yourself.”
The shuttlers shifted to the house at the start of the year, sharing rooms and living in a bio-bubble, moving only between home and academy. “Pramod, Manoj and Tarun (Dhillon, who lost a bronze medal match) got their cars, and we were set,” Khanna said.
“At a time when going out was difficult, staying there ensured there was no break in our training routine," Bhagat said.
They also got a couple of cooks and a domestic help to stay with them. It ensured their diet plans were met. “We all love our food,” Kohli said. “We would trouble them with our different demands, but they always made everything with a smile. It felt like we were eating our mother’s food. At home, my mom would often scold me for not drinking milk. Here, our cook bhaiya would be after me with a stick, saying, ‘I’ll tell Gaurav sir’ if I didn’t eat something,” she added with a chuckle.
The joyful atmosphere made the teenager feel at ease living away from home for months with people of different age-groups. Bhagat is 33 and Parul Parmar, Kohli’s doubles partner, is 48.
“Though I missed home, I had another family there,” she said. “We enjoy each other’s company, culture and festivals. We joke around, even make fun of each other’s disabilities because we never look at it as a disability. I am the youngest, so they would pull my leg the most. I miss that atmosphere.”
It’s an atmosphere Khanna built brick by brick, turning a potentially tricky obstacle into a smooth ride. “We didn’t have anything to start with, but managed everything on our own. We’ve seen the days of struggle together. Now, we live together, eat together, party together, celebrate birthdays together,” he said. “It’s our world. Chota hai par apna hai (it’s small, but it is ours).”