Four-time world champion Pramod Bhagat scripted history by becoming the first Indian ever to win a badminton gold at the Paralympics at the Tokyo 2020 Games last year. The world no. 1 was conferred with the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award in October 2021 and recently he became the first para-badminton athlete to receive the prestigious Padma Shri award. Bhagat, who is currently busy training in Spain and France, spoke exclusively to News18.com on the honour, his game plan for the upcoming tournaments including the Asian Games and World Championship, and why he doesn’t feel the pressure of being on top.
You were awarded the Khel Ratna last year and this year you have received the prestigious Padma Shri from the Government of India. How motivating is this for you?
It has been a dream come true for me. I had been waiting for this ever since I started my professional journey and I really want to thank the government of India and also every citizen of our country who has supported me and my fellow colleagues and inspired us to just do better every time. People have showered me with so much love and that just makes me aim bigger. I am currently enjoying all the success but I don’t want to take it to my head. The government has been really supportive of all of us. They have put us on the same pedestal as the able-bodied athletes and have given us the same honour which is a huge thing for us. We have seen the maximum Arjuna awards and Khel Ratna awards, which is a huge motivating factor for all future athletes including the differently abled.
You started your career in 2005. How has the scenario for para-badminton changed since then?
When I started, I never had the facility to play in an indoor stadium. I used to play outdoors and that was my training ground. My journey was extremely difficult. I belonged to a poor family and when I started, badminton was not a popular sport. But I had a strong determination to make a career in this sport. The Attabira Badminton Association, locals and coaches also helped me mentally, physically and even financially and a lot of credit goes to these people. Around a decade ago, the Odisha government, too, recognised my talent and helped me. Today, after achieving so much, I am fortunate to be able to train at a personal stadium, have personal coaches, trainers and dietitians. So the overall scenario has only changed in a positive way.
What kind of assistance is the government providing for para-athletes?
Earlier, the entire attention was only towards able-bodied athletes, but things have changed drastically. The government is taking a lot of initiative and is trying to provide the maximum support to all the athletes. I have been part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) for the past three years. They are giving us priority and are also providing us maximum funding for the development of our games. In fact, parasports have been placed in the ‘priority’ category for financial assistance by the government. If you look at the Aces’ Sportsman of the year nominees, my nomination is alongside Neeraj Chopra and Ravi Dahiya. They have given us the same platform. In the past, we have seen many foreign nations providing the same platform for para-athletes and normal athletes and today I can see that happening in India too. The government is no longer making a distinction and is providing us with the same platform.
There are around 14 tournaments in 2022 including the Asian Games and World Championship. How are you looking at the calendar?
2022 is one of the most important years of my career. I have already started preparing for the tournament and focusing on winning medals for India. Sukant (Kadam), Krishna (Nagar) first went to Spain and trained there for 15 days where we are going to play in a tournament next month. We are currently in Paris training at the CREPS ile-de-France academy. We wanted to get acclimated to the conditions of courts and weather in Paris as the 2024 Paralympics are going to be held here and that is the final goal. I want to raise the flag high again in Paris. I will work with a renewed hunger in chasing that dream.
How do you plan to work on your game?
I am starting from zero again. I just want to give my best and bag a gold medal in Spain followed by Brazil, Bahrain and many other tournaments including the Asian Games and World Championship. The idea is to take one game at a time. My career high has been winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics but I don’t want to be overconfident. I am building small targets for myself. As I keep achieving my goals, I will execute my plans and strategies for my game. I came to Spain specifically to understand Daniel Bethell’s (world number two) game and study it. I also want to know their training style and how these international players approach their game. I hope this gives me benefit in my future tournaments.
You are currently the world number one para-badminton player? Is there pressure to perform and win every time you go out and play?
I am not feeling any pressure. I have always had a strong mindset. We listen to the coaching staff and other people for their advice, but when I am on the court, I am the lone warrior and no one else is there to help me. I motivate myself a lot and whenever I am playing the game, my thought process is always that I am the best. Even today, I am of the opinion that I am the best. I have always set small goals for myself to achieve the bigger goals. I first became the world champion in 2009 followed by 2013 and 2015. Two years later in 2017, I was injured at the World Championship and it was a big setback. But it also was a turning point in my career. I started focusing a lot more on my game and did a lot of hard work and, since then, I have never looked back. But all this is because I don’t try and look at the bigger picture and take one thing at a time. I have won more than 120 medals, but they all are equivalent to one gold medal at the Paralympics.
Going back to the final match at the Tokyo Paralympics 2020, you were 4-11 down in the second game. You turned it around and won the game 21-17. What was going through your mind at that point in time?
That’s an interesting question. It was an experience of my lifetime. When I started the second game, I was feeling a bit out of touch. If I was tossing the shuttle, it was going out and if I was playing it low, it was going in Daniel’s (Bethell) hands. I was 4-11 when we got time to rest. The only thing going on in my mind was what was I doing? If you see when I started the 4-11 rally, I was just lost in my thoughts and wasn’t doing much. He got the 12th point but at the same time, I got my strategy back. I realised that I cannot lose. The plan was to fight for each point. I started my plan and slowly the game started coming into my hands and ultimately I took control of it and won the match. So like I said earlier, at that moment only you are there for yourself and no one else can guide you.
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