The sound of powerful smashes as early as six in the morning brings a few early risers in the houses surrounding one of the parks at the OMEX City at the Raebareli Road here on their balconies and rooftops.
Young Indian Olympic qualifier Palak Kohli, a para shuttler who has qualified for the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, is engrossed in an interesting duel with Nilesh Gaekwad and her coach Gaurav Khanna Gaurav on a makeshift badminton court at the big housing society after the training facility at the UP Badminton Academy was shut on account of the coronavirus pandemic.
Left with no option, Palak and Nilesh, who were the only two shuttlers left in a group of 10 who could not leave the Lucknow’s training centre—made a makeshift court in the housing colony and now train regularly to be in shape for the quadrennial event next year.
“Immediately after the lockdown was announced and eight fellow shuttlers left, we were at our wits’ end. For the first few days, we didn’t know what to do. But soon we came up with this idea of designing a makeshift court in the park adjacent to our house,” says Palak, the world No. 5 in SU5 category.
“I have not gone home in Jalandhar since November 2019 and the lockdown happened so suddenly, we had no option but to stay put,” says Palak, a gold medallist in women’s doubles with Parul Parmar at the Uganda Para International Tournament last year. “It’s a boon in disguise as I’m getting good training, which would not have been possible had I gone home.”
Till a couple of years back, Palak was nowhere on the badminton scene but now the class 12 student of Police DAV Public School, Jalandhar is among the better prospects for winning a medal at the Paralympic Games. It was by coincidence that Palak, who has a severely deformed left hand, took up badminton after someone suggested she could take up para sport.
“I used to ask God, ‘why me’? But after falling into love with badminton and achieving success at the national and international level over the next two years, I forgot all my pain and agony and now I believe that the Almighty had something big in store for me,” says Palak, who will probably be the only India para shuttler to play both singles and doubles at the Tokyo Paralympics.
“I hardly get time to think about anything else other than badminton in between my two training sessions of almost three hours each. It might surprise people that I train on an open court… it’s difficult, but I am focused on my game plan. I am thankful to my coach Gaurav Khanna, who not only picked me for para badminton, but also trained me to come this far.”
A house with six full-furnished bedrooms, on the outskirts of Lucknow was housing 10 India team para shuttlers till about three weeks back. A day before the lockdown was announced, eight of them managed to return to their respective homes but Palak wasn’t that lucky.
But thanks to money from the government-funded Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), Palak is not concerned about paying rent for her stay at the rented house or her daily needs.
“We’ve got a refrigerator and air-conditioners… we are able to run the show with the (TOPS) money the trainees get. We are like a joint family where everyone cares about the other and that’s the secret of our success. Of the 12 international tournaments we’ve played so far during the qualifying period for the Tokyo Paralympics, all the Indians have done well and seven of them have almost qualified,” says coach Khanna.
“We didn’t have any scientific support, including equipment for physical training etc., but we did buy a cycle and some physical-training equipment hours before the lockdown. Now, I am trying to get all the players regrouped for training here,” says Khanna.
He says that all other players who left Lucknow were following their daily schedule online. “I post the schedule on a Whatsapp group in advance and everyone follows it. Everyone has to posts his or her video on the group every day as it helps me keep a tab on their training.”
Besides Palak and Parul, the other key players of the Indian para-badminton team are: Tarun, Krishna, Pramod, Manoj, Suhas LY and Abu Hubaida.
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