Karan Prashant Saxena
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
India’s rising table-tennis star Sathiyan Gnanasekaran had a busy 2019. Competing in tournaments all over the world, he rose to career-best ITTF rankings of 24. With the Olympics qualification period approaching in the year 2020, the year was turning out to be an even busier one before coronavirus pandemic put a stop to sports all over the world. “I was living a completely different life. Especially for sport stars like us. We are literally living in a suitcase, traveling all the time. Lots of active, heavy life involved. It’s quite different from being lockdown at home,” Sathiyan tells Hindustan Times in a telephonic conversation.
After competing in Hungary Open in February, and then participating at Qatar Open in March, Sathiyan returned home to Chennai on March 7. The cases in India were below 100 at the time, but things were slowly and steadily aggravating.
“After my return, I was not categorically asked to stay in isolation or anything. But for my own safety, I stuck around at home for a few days, even though I was not feeling any symptoms – cough, cold or fever. The situation started escalating in India a week after that. Then, the lockdown happened, so, since then, I am just at home,” he says.
Sathiyan immediately realised he needs to continue to work on his fitness, so he started speaking with his coaches, and started planning a home preparation routine. “We had planned for the Olympics. But I knew we had to rework all those plans. I am sending videos of me playing and fitness training to my coach. He is sending me feedback and analysis on that. I am myself doing a self-assessment of my past videos,” he tells.
Assisting him in his training at his home during lockdown is Sathiyan’s new ‘best friend’ – Butterfly Amicus Prime robot. “It’s one of the most advanced robots in the world. We got it imported from Germany last November for preparation for my World Cup. Subramaniam (Raman) sir was the one who told me and my coach that we should get it.”
The device allows Sathiyan to train as it can send up 120 balls per minute with varied speed, trajectory, and spin. “It’s quite intelligent. You can do a combination of exercises with it,” he says, though admits, a robot cannot replace humans as sparring partners. “Of course, a robot cannot be a human. A top-class player is always the best sparring partner. But in the current situation, when we are stuck at home and are in a lockdown, I see it as my best friend.”
At home, the amount of exercises that Sathiyan can do is limited, as compared to the ones he was able to do at his gym or training centers.
“I was fortunate to have some exercise equipment at my place such as bands, weights, stepper, hurdles. I am trying to use whatever I have at my disposal to keep myself fit. Of course, there are several exercises you can do without equipment, and just with your body weight. I have been focusing on balance, stability and strength exercises. It’s not as important to right now to push up your level, but actually to maintain your fitness level,” he says.
Besides, training and maintaining a fitness schedule, the Indian paddler ensures he watches at least one movie a day with his mother during lunchtime. Since his mother is into Malayali movies these days, Sathiyan, too is watching the same these days on Netflix. “We scroll through and pick the movie based on the storyline. We like inspirational movies. It’s fun spending time with my mom. I don’t remember being at home for a month since my 12th class board exams – which was 10 years ago. This is something I am able to enjoy even in these tough circumstances,” he says.
Apart from Malayali movies, Sathiyan also watched Netflix hit show Money Heist. He is also spending time doing yoga, gardening and reading books. Besides reading sports autobiographies, the paddler recently read Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life – a book by Albert Lierbermann and Hector Garcia.
“It’s about how to keep yourself happy and stay positive. I think it’s really needed at this time,” he says.
With the tournaments cancelled all over the world, and no clear calendar ahead, Sathiyan says an athlete can feel anxious about when he would get a chance to return to action. But he believes he needs to not worry about things that are out of his control. “We just have to be patient. What I can control is my fitness. We need to be ready when things become normal. There might be a lot of competitions stacked closely, and there might be a jam-packed schedule. So, I am preparing myself for that mentally.”
When he heard about the postponement of the Tokyo Games to 2021, Sathiyan was relieved. The Olympics have been cancelled twice before, during World Wars, but had never been postponed in history. It was his biggest concern. “I have been preparing for so long. I have never been to the Olympics, it’s my dream. We knew no country was prepared to take sports seriously when life is at risk. So it was a very important and brave decision IOC took, despite suffering huge economic losses,” he says.
The athlete also believes that the postponement could be a ‘blessing in disguise’ for India’s rising table-tennis contingent. “The more exposure and experience we are getting, the more tournaments we play, we are getting better. We are getting ready to compete against the top-level players. With Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) coming in, players from other countries really want to visit here. India is becoming a table tennis destination,” he says.
“In the first season of UTT, I was ranked at 120th position. Last season, I was the top-ranked player (24) in the competition. UTT has given Indian players a chance to compete against top-level players and see how they go about their sport. It made me a better player. We are getting stronger and better. And now, I have one year extra to improve myself. I believe I am going to be a better version of Sathiyan in 2021,” he signs off.
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