He Had No Idea ‘Others Like Him’ Competed in Sports. Now, He’s the World No 1 Para-Badminton Athlete.

The incredible story of Pramod Bhagat, who is gunning for gold at the Tokyo Paralympics.

24 August 2021, 11:40am

When Pramod Bhagat was in high school, he’d proudly carry his weapon of choice – the badminton racquet – to a court nearby. Some would jeer at him but those were only the people who had never seen him in action. If they stuck around long enough to see him wield the racquet, though, they’d never bother the teenager again. 

And then there were those who knew that Bhagat – who got polio when he was five – was destined for greater things. “These were my seniors, some of whom would simply hand me money to ensure I could play as much as possible,” Bhagat told VICE. Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that can affect the nervous system and cause paralysis, usually in the legs.

At the time, Bhagat – who grew up in Attabira, a small town in Odisha in eastern India – had no idea that the world of competitive sport had a place for disabled people. Today, though, as the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games kick off, all eyes are on Bhagat, who has worked his way up to become the World No 1 para-shuttler, and who will soon be competing in the SL-3 (Standing/lower limb impairment/minor) category. 

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Known as the fastest racquet sport in the world, this is badminton’s debut at the Paralympics, with a total of 90 players from six classes (two wheelchair classes and four standing ones) competing in singles, doubles and mixed doubles events. 

The spotlight, however, is on Bhagat who will be representing the country that had its best Olympics recently, even though it has the lowest population-to-medal ratio: India.

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“I’ve had to fight on multiple occasions to get this far, often on my own,” Bhagat said before boarding a flight to Tokyo amid a pandemic that continues to rage. “I’ve won many gold medals in the past and there’s just one aim now: the Olympic gold.”

The fight for a podium finish, though, has hardly been an easy one. In a country where millions of people have disabilities and yet are stigmatised and made invisible at every level, Bhagat, too, had almost given up on his dream several times.

Back when he was just discovering the sport, other boys his age were apprehensive of having him play alongside them, fearing he may injure himself. His father, too, believed sports weren’t to be taken seriously for “kids like him,” though he allowed his son to continue playing just because he liked watching him discover things that thrilled him. 

“We played outdoors during those days since there were no indoor facilities in the vicinity,” said Bhagat, who would wind up his studies and homework by evening so he could wield the racquet right until the town was ready to slumber. “Coming home late at night was a big deal, but my father was sure I wasn’t indulging in any wrongful activities. He backed me all through those early days.”

Bhagat continued to go up against able-bodied players until a phone call changed his life. A local coach, SP Das, had heard of Bhagat’s talents, and decided to take a chance on the young boy. Two weeks before a local tournament in 2005, the duo met for the first time. Checking out the potential that lay in front of him, Das took him under his wing. Bhagat finished as the singles and doubles champion at the tournament. 

“Honestly, I was more excited to see that there were others like me. I played against a disabled opponent for the first time and soon learnt that the sport was also played at the world stage. People had made careers out of it. That tournament changed my life,” Bhagat recalled.

The months ahead, though, would shake him up. While at the National Badminton Championships in 2005, he learnt of his father’s death. He dedicated the singles title to his father, but there were more pressing issues to deal with at home. His father’s untimely demise made him the sole breadwinner among a family of six siblings. As an aspiring professional shuttler, it was hard to stay focused on his passion alongside having to provide for his family. But he eventually decided to continue playing.

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“The difficulties that I faced back then have brought me to where I am today,” he said. “There’s so much to learn from them – the things you want to achieve and the person you want to be. It taught me a lot at a very young age. I became a mature person overnight.”

Bhagat’s first international outing came at the FESPIC (Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled) Games in Kuala Lumpur in 2006. The next year, he started repping the country and winning in an Indian jersey. The first medals came at the Para Badminton World Championships – a bronze each in the singles and doubles. The potential was evident, and he decided to turn professional. At the same tournament in 2009, he picked up his first singles’ gold and rose to become the World No. 1. 

“I took badminton seriously after that point and started organising my training, keeping the next event in mind,” he said.

In a year, though, that plan fell apart as he reconsidered his decision of playing at the highest level. While gearing up for the World Championships in Guatemala, he received news that India had withdrawn from the tournament. He didn’t take the news well.

“I was the world champion, yet there was no help being extended to me so that I could play at the highest level. It shook me up and I decided to quit the game,” he said.

The following year, Bhagat took on an assignment of a different kind. He became a badminton coach at a school near his home, working with kids while considering the idea of making it his livelihood. It took a lot of prodding on coach Das’ part to convince him to start training again. 

“Coaching opened up a whole new dimension for me. It gave me a lot of experience about the game on the whole. I also kept in touch with the game through it, so it took little time for me to find my rhythm,” Bhagat said.

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“Of course, my body became a lot slower during this period and I had to really work on it once I resumed competition. There were times when I would be in the lead, only to lose momentum and eventually, the match. I would very often land up playing an extra game when I was firmly in control. It took a while for me to get back my fitness.”

By 2013, Bhagat was back as World No. 1. It was also the year he teamed up with his doubles partner, Manoj Sarkar. The two have played together ever since, except in 2015, and have picked up big wins that include the Para Badminton World Championships gold in Basel in 2019. The same year, his achievements were celebrated with the Arjuna Award, which is handed out to Indian sportspersons for excellence in their field. 

The team’s latest triumph, a gold at the Para Badminton International in Dubai in April, affirms them as the No. 1 pairing in the world going into the Paralympics. But when Bhagat plays singles, he will be up against Sarkar, who is the World No. 3 para-shuttler.

“It’s difficult to play him since he knows my game so well. He knows exactly how I think. Only my experience gives me the edge in certain situations,” he said.

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Besides singles and doubles, Bhagat will also feature in the mixed doubles alongside teen sensation Palak Kohli. The duo clicked in Dubai, where they won bronze.

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“We’ve just played a couple of tournaments, so we’re still figuring things out. She’s really young and needs to learn how to handle crunch situations. We lose easy games at times and win the difficult ones, so we’re still coming to terms with match situations,” he said. 

Over the years, Bhagat has notched up four World Championships singles medals, two at the Asian Para Games, and is at the top of his game. Yet, he is well aware of how things can change in a flash. In 2017, he experienced a slump that saw him go out at the semi-final stage on a few occasions. An ankle injury further hampered his progress. He had to regroup his energies and rework his thought process to eventually reclaim the World No. 1 ranking the following year. 

“That was really important to me – to find my place again after falling. I’ve become resilient today and I keep looking for new challenges when I hit the court. I’ve been working on my physical abilities, but I believe it’s all in the head. The way you think will help you achieve the things that you wish to,” he said. 

For the last six months, Bhagat has been training with the rest of the seven-member Indian squad in the city of Lucknow in north India, under coach Gaurav Khanna. Four days after his birthday in June, he received news of his qualification for the quadrennial tournament. 

“It’s the best birthday gift that I’ve received till date. This was a really long wait,” he said.

Some of the best athletes will gather in Tokyo to win a medal for their country alongside shattering stereotypes as Japan battles a record wave of infections. It’s a lot to think of, but Bhagat seems to have his eye firmly on the prize. 

“I’ve got so many medals now [such] that in my new home, I hope to build a cabinet where I can display them,” he said. “However, I’m still to win my favourite medal and that’s going to come at the Paralympics.”

Follow Shail Desai on Twitter.

Tagged:

India, paralympics, badminton, medals, tokyo paralympics, pramod bhagat

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