She played badminton in an era when there was no support system or big money. The passion for the game kept them going. P. Lakshmi Gopichand is the first woman Olympian from the then united Andhra Pradesh when she represented India in women’s singles badminton in the 1996 Atlanta Games. A feat which was highly creditable given the status of the sport itself in India and also the kind of facilities, or lack of them, then.
And, not many are aware that Lakshmi’s father Krishna Rao was her coach when she won the junior national triple crown before moving from Vijayawada to Hyderabad in 1993 to join Dronacharya S.M. Arif at Fateh Maidan Indoor Stadium.
The shuttlers were never sure when the stadium would be closed. It was the regular venue for storing the ballot boxes (then) of General Elections and for any VIP function. So, Lakshmi trained along with her sister P.V. Sarada, the two were also national women’s doubles champions.
“When I look back to the Atlanta Games, I consider that experience as the best every in my career. It was not just about competing but also watching the greats from other disciplines especially tennis, athletics, hockey was such a memorable outing for me,” 45-year-old Lakshmi recalls in a chat with Sportstar on the eve of Mother's Day.
“Frankly, those were the days when you couldn’t set any targets like making it to the Olympics for the qualifying norms were different and then it was a 128-player draw. But once I earned a career-best rank, World No. 67 towards the end of 1995, I did think of being part of Olympics family,” she says.
“Then, thanks to the support from Shiv Charan of Sri Krisna Jewellers who took care of my boarding and lodging expenses after I spent for the flight tickets I could compete in a couple of tournaments in the European circuit to improve my ranking,” she adds.
Lakshmi is understandably elated that she happened to be the first woman Olympian from the Telugu-speaking state. “Definitely, it was never easy though I won’t say it was a great debut having lost in the second round after beating World No. 29 Anne Gibson of UK in the first round,” she says.
How was the game then? “Now, you see lot of long rallies with even sub-juniors playing 15-20 rallies with ease. But, in terms of training methods, the basics were the same only difference then being our training methods were raw and more of trial and error method unlike the scientific method now available,” Lakshmi says.
The other major aspect of modern day badminton is that the players can focus more on their sport as many other subjects are taken care off by professionals like the complete support staff ensuring that everything is in place.
“Definitely, never thought badminton would reach this level in India. I remember in those days, many fellow players were content if they crossed the first round in the Nationals. I didn’t like that kind of attitude. Then, I used to feel differently and told to my self - we could do it by improved performances,” Lakshmi says.
“Well, if players of that era had the kind of international exposure and training facilities the current generation have, they could have made a bigger impact too,” she says.
“When it comes to putting in the efforts, they were no less hard-working. They only lacked the kind of support system which is in place now,” she adds.
Lakshmi, the mother
How does it feel to be mother of two kids - Sai Vishnu and Gayathri - moving up the ladder in the age groups in badminton? “We (me and Gopi) just want to ensure they enjoy the game and don’t invite pressure of any kind. Luckily, both of them are hard-working. We don’t interfere too much in their training programmes but ensure they stick to the day’s schedule with all sincerity. Discipline is what we insist at any cost," she says.
“We are also lucky they are very receptive to suggestions and implement them very quickly. And, hence we don’t push them too hard, like setting goals in terms of winning this title or that one,” she adds.
Reflecting on the postponement of the Games, Lakshmi says it is a sad scenario. “I feel sorry for those senior players who had a chance to making it to original schedule of Tokyo Games this year. Now, one year is a long, long time in an athlete’s career for the whole training programme has to be revisited to start afresh with new Olympics qualifying norms in place,” says the BPCL officer.
The next generation of shuttlers
Lakshmi usually travels with her kids. “It is mostly about travelling with the kids as this is a critical phase in their career, needs the parents' support. I take care of their diet and training schedule before a tournament,” she says.
Any administrative role in Gopi Academy? “Right now, no. I am lucky my mother-in-law (Gopi’s mother Mrs. Subbaravamma) takes care of that. If the need arises, then I will step in otherwise I am happy taking care of my kids,” she says.
Lakshmi also feels that Gopi setting up the academy in Hyderabad is the biggest thing to have happened to Indian badminton. “We, as players, suffered a lot for wanting decent training facilities. So, our first objective was to see there is no break in training schedule. Honestly, we didn’t set goals like producing a World champion or an Olympic medallist when we started the academy,” Lakshmi points out.
When asked how she feels when Gopi is criticised, she says, "Initially, I get agitated and even think Gopi should respond. But, soon I realise what Gopi does - to stay calm and composed - is right. We believed in the philosophy that if we don’t harm anyone, it is fair enough not to worry about anything,” Lakshmi says.